No means no: SMU study shows that teen girls report less sexual victimization after virtual-reality assertiveness training

Ernest Jouriles

No means no: SMU study shows that teen girls report less sexual victimization after virtual-reality assertiveness training

Stock photo of two people holding handsTeen girls were less likely to report being sexually victimized after learning to assertively resist unwanted sexual overtures and practicing resistance in a realistic virtual environment, according to a new SMU-led study.

The effects persisted over a three-month period following the training, says clinical psychologist Lorelei Simpson Rowe, lead author on the pilot study and an associate professor of psychology in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.

The research also found that those girls who had previously experienced dating violence reported lower levels of psychological aggression and psychological distress after completing the program, relative to girls in a comparison group.

“The virtual simulations allowed girls to practice being assertive in a realistic environment. The intent of the program is for the learning opportunity to increase the likelihood that they will use the skills in real life,” said Simpson Rowe, who also serves as graduate program co-director in the Department of Psychology. “Research has shown that skills are more likely to generalize if they are practiced in a realistic environment, so we used virtual reality to increase the realism.”

The training program, called “My Voice, My Choice,” emphasizes that victims do not invite sexual violence and that they have the right to stand up for themselves because violent or coercive behavior is never OK.

“It is very promising that learning resistance skills and practicing them in virtual simulations of coercive interactions could reduce the risk for later sexual victimization,” said Simpson Rowe.

She cautioned, however, that the research is preliminary and based on a small sample: 42 in the “My Voice, My Choice” condition and 36 in a control condition. Future research is needed to establish the benefits of the program across different age groups and populations, for example, college versus high school students.

The study’s strengths included its randomized controlled design and a high participant retention rate among the 78 teen girls in the study.

The virtual-reality simulation component of “My Voice, My Choice” utilizes a software program developed by study co-authors Ernest N. Jouriles and Renee McDonald in conjunction with the game design program in The Guildhall at SMU. Jouriles and McDonald are clinical psychologists in the SMU Psychology Department. Jouriles is professor and chair. McDonald is a professor and associate dean of research and academic affairs in Dedman College.

“One advantage the virtual simulations offer is the ability to actually observe whether, and how, the girls are using the skills in coercive situations that feel very real,” McDonald said. “This provides girls with opportunities for immediate feedback and accelerated learning, and for facilitators to easily spot areas in need of further strengthening. The value of this advantage can’t be overstated.”

One question that remains for future research is whether the practice in virtual simulations was the operative factor that reduced sexual victimization, Simpson Rowe said.

“We need to determine if practice in a virtual setting is the key factor in making the intervention effective, or if other factors, such as being encouraged to stand up for themselves, led to the outcomes,” she said.

The researchers reported their findings, “Reducing Sexual Victimization among Adolescent Girls: A Randomized Controlled Pilot Trial of My Voice, My Choice,” in the journal Behavior Therapy. The article has been published online in advance of print.

Written by Margaret Allen

> Read the full story from the SMU Research blog

February 12, 2015|Faculty in the News, For the Record, News, Research|

Three honored at 2012 Dedman College Celebration

Group photo from SMU's 2012 Dedman College Celebration, March 20

Dean William Tsutsui (left) and SMU President R. Gerald Turner (right) helped honor three award recipients at the 2012 Dedman College Celebration (from second from left): Psychology Chair Ernest Jouriles, senior student Kevin Eaton, and alumnus John F. Harper, M.D., ’68. (Photo credit: Hillsman S. Jackson, SMU)

Three outstanding members of the Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences community received awards March 20 during the 2012 Dedman College Celebration.

Ernest Jouriles, professor and chair of psychology, was named Dedman Family Distinguished Professor. Jouriles is a noted researcher and expert on children’s responses to family violence and violence in adolescent romantic relationships. As co-director of SMU’s Family Research Center, he has developed (with co-director Renee McDonald) a series of research-based intervention and assessment programs for children exposed to frequent and severe relationship violence. Jouriles joined the SMU faculty as chair of the Department of Psychology in 2003.

Political science, economics and public policy major Kevin Eaton received the Robert and Nancy Dedman Outstanding Senior Student Award. The President’s Scholar from Duncanville served as the student representative to the SMU Board of Trustees Committee on Academic Policy and was a community assistant with Residence Life and Student Housing, as well as an Honor Council member. After graduation, Eaton plans to attend law school and pursue a career in appellate advocacy for the U.S. government.

Dr. John F. Harper ’68, a clinical cardiologist with Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, received the Dedman College Distinguished Graduate Award. A board-certified cardiologist and member of the Presbyterian Heart & Vascular Group, he has practiced his specialty for 33 years. Harper earned his M.D. degree from UT-Southwestern Medical School in 1972 and served his internship and residency, as well as a fellowship, with Parkland Memorial Hospital. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Dedman College.

March 21, 2012|For the Record, News|

Research Spotlight: Abusive mothers get better with education, support

MotherDaughter.jpgA new study led by SMU researchers shows that mothers who live in poverty and who have abused their children can stop if they are taught parenting skills and given emotional support.

The study found that mothers in families in which there is a history of child abuse and neglect were able to reduce how much they cursed at, yelled at, slapped, spanked, hit or rejected their children after a series of home visits from therapists who taught them parenting skills.

There were large improvements in mothers’ parenting in families that received the intensive services, compared to families that did not receive the services, according to SMU psychologists Ernest Jouriles and Renee McDonald, two of the study’s eight authors.

As a result of the intensive, hands-on training, the women in the study said they felt they did a better job managing their children’s behavior, say Jouriles and McDonald. The mothers also were observed to use better parenting strategies, and the families were less likely to be reported again for child abuse.

“Although there are many types of services for addressing child maltreatment, there is very little scientific data about whether the services actually work,” McDonald says. “This study adds to our scientific knowledge and shows that this type of service can actually work.”

The parenting training is part of a program called Project Support, developed at SMU’s Family Research Center and designed to help children in severely violent families.

The study appears in the current issue of the Journal of Family Psychology in an article titled “Improving Parenting in Families Referred for Child Maltreatment: A Randomized Controlled Trial Examining Effects of Project Support.” SMU psychologist David Rosenfield also authored the study.

The research was funded by the federal Interagency Consortium on Violence Against Women and Violence Within the Family, along with the Texas-based Hogg Foundation for Mental Health.

“Child maltreatment is such an important and costly problem in our society that it seems imperative to make sure that our efforts – and the tax dollars that pay for them – are actually solving the problem,” Jouriles says. He and McDonald are co-founders and co-directors of SMU’s Family Research Center.

The study worked with 35 families screened through the Texas child welfare agency Child Protective Services (CPS). The parents had abused or neglected their children at least once, but CPS determined it best the family stay together and receive services to improve parenting and end the maltreatment.

In all the families, the mother was legal guardian and primary caregiver and typically had three children. On average she was 28, single and had an annual income of $10,300. Children in the study ranged from 3 to 8 years old.

Half the families in the study received Project Support parenting education and support. The other half received CPS’s conventional services. Mental health service providers met with the 17 Project Support families weekly in their homes for up to 6 months.

During that time, mothers, and often their husbands or partners, were taught 12 specific skills, including how to pay attention and play with their children, how to listen and comfort them, how to offer praise and positive attention, how to give appropriate instructions and commands, and how to respond to misbehavior.

In addition, therapists provided the mothers with emotional support and helped them access materials and resources through community agencies as needed, such as food banks and Medicaid. The therapists also helped mothers evaluate the adequacy and safety of the family’s living arrangements, the quality of their child-care arrangements and how to provide enough food with so little money.

Only 5.9 percent of the families trained through Project Support were later referred to CPS for abuse, compared with almost 28 percent of the control group, the researchers found.

“The results of this study have important implications for the field of child maltreatment,” says SMU’s Rosenfield.

Written by Margaret Allen

> Read more at the SMU Research blog

August 24, 2010|Research|

Research Spotlight: Four professors named 2010 Ford Fellows

SMU's 2010 Ford Research FellowsFour outstanding SMU researchers have received the University’s 2010 Ford Research Fellowships. This year’s recipients are Jaime Clark-Soles, New Testament, Perkins School of Theology; Ernie Jouriles, Psychology, Dedman College; Daniel Millimet, Economics, Dedman College; and Brent Sumerlin, Chemistry, Dedman College.

Established in 2002 through a $1 million pledge from SMU Trustee Gerald J. Ford, the fellowships help the University retain and reward outstanding scholars. Each recipient receives a cash prize for research support during the year.

Read more about this year’s recipients under the link.

(Above, the new Ford Research Fellows were honored by the SMU Board of Trustees during its May meeting (left to right): Brent Sumerlin, Jaime Clark-Soles, Daniel Millimet and Ernie Jouriles. Photo by Hillsman S. Jackson.)

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May 18, 2010|News, Research|

Research Spotlight: How children respond to family violence

Stock photo of paper dolls with broken heartsIf children feel threatened by even very low levels of violence between their parents, they may be at increased risk for developing trauma symptoms, new research suggests.

A study by psychologists at SMU found that children who witness violence between their mother and her intimate partner report fewer trauma symptoms if they don’t perceive the violence as threatening.

The research highlights the importance of assessing how threatened a child feels when his or her parents are violent toward one another, and how that sense of threat may be linked to symptoms of trauma.

“Our results indicated a relation between children’s perception of threat and their trauma symptoms in a community sample reporting relatively low levels of violence,” said Deborah Corbitt-Shindler, a doctoral candidate in the SMU Psychology Department. “The results of the study suggest that even very low levels of violence, if interpreted as threatening by children, can influence the development of trauma symptoms in children.”

The researchers presented their findings Feb. 24, 2010, at the “National Summit on Interpersonal Violence and Abuse Across the Lifespan: Forging a Shared Agenda” in Dallas. The scientific conference was sponsored by the National Partnership to End Interpersonal Violence Across the Lifespan.

Family violence experts estimate that more than half of children exposed to intimate partner violence experience trauma symptoms, such as bad dreams, nightmares and trying to forget about the fights.

In the study, mothers were asked to describe any violent arguments they’d had with their intimate partners, and they were asked about trauma symptoms they may have experienced because of the violence.

Similarly, the children in the study, age 7 to 10 years old, were asked to appraise how threatened they felt by the violence they witnessed, and about trauma symptoms they may have experienced because of the violence. The researchers defined “threat” as the extent to which children are concerned that a family member might be harmed, the stability of the family is threatened, or a parent won’t be able to care for them.

To assess trauma, children were asked questions such as if they’ve had bad dreams or nightmares about their mom’s and dad’s arguments or fights; if thoughts of the arguments or fights ever just pop into their mind; if they ever try to forget all about the arguments and fights; and if they ever wish they could turn off feelings that remind them of the arguments and fights.

The researchers found that even when mothers reported an episode of intimate partner violence, their children reported fewer trauma symptoms when they didn’t view the episode as threatening. Although a mother’s emotions sometimes affect their children’s emotions, in this study the mothers’ trauma symptoms were unrelated to the children’s traumatic responses to the violence.

Corbitt-Shindler conducted the study in conjunction with her faculty advisers – Renee McDonald, associate professor, and Ernest Jouriles, professor and chair of the SMU Psychology Department. Additional co-authors of the study were SMU clinical psychology doctoral candidates Erica Rosentraub and Laura Minze; and Rachel Walker, SMU Psychology Department research assistant.

Written by Margaret Allen

> Read more at the SMU Research blog

March 30, 2010|Research|
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