Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Clinical Psychology

First Advisor

Alice S. Carter

Second Advisor

Lizabeth Roemer

Third Advisor

Rachel Chazan Cohen


While exposure to domestic violence (DV) during childhood has been shown to be a risk factor for a wide range of negative outcomes across multiple domains, not all exposed children suffer negative outcomes. This study examined the potential moderating role of narrative coherence as well as the mediating roles of mothers’ scaffolding of language and emotion in the relation between DV exposure and behavior problems in 5th graders. Behavioral observations of mother-child conversations about everyday conflicts were rated to assess maternal and child narrative coherence as well as mothers’ ability to scaffold their children’s problem-solving and emotional expression. Participants were 162 mother-child pairs drawn from the Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project. Forty-nine parents reported child exposure to domestic violence between 0- to 3-years (early exposure), 60 parents reported child exposure between 3- to 11-years (late exposure), and 53 parents did not endorse DV exposure (non-exposed). Parents of children in both exposed groups reported higher levels of internalizing behavior problems than parents of children in the non-exposed group. Ratings of observed Parent Coherence (but not Child Coherence) moderated the relation between domestic violence exposure and internalizing behavior problems, such that higher levels of Parent Coherence was associated with fewer internalizing behavior problems in the early exposure group, more internalizing behavior problems in the late exposure group, and had no impact for the non-exposed group. Higher maternal use of Problem-Directed Negative Affect was also associated with higher internalizing behavior problems. Mothers who expressed more Problem-Directed Negative Affect and less Positive Affect reported higher externalizing behavior problems. DV exposure emerged as a unique predictor of externalizing behavior only when controlling for Positive Affect. Family Conflict, which at high levels may indicate the presence of DV, was associated with both internalizing and externalizing behavior problems. Together, the results of this study suggest that various aspects of the mother-child relationship as well as the timing of DV exposure may be critically important in how children manage in the face of exposure to domestic violence, and that there are likely multiple, nuanced mechanisms of action impacting the influence of exposure on children’s mental health.


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