Children and Domestic Violence

There is no uniform response to living with domestic violence. Children’s responses vary enormously, with some children being affected far more than others; children within the same family can be affected differently. Each child’s experiences and reactions are unique. Whether or not children are physically abused, they often suffer emotional and psychological trauma from living in homes where a parent is being abused. Just because your child may not be directly hurt or in the room at the time of abuse there is still impacts on their mental well-being. Research indicates that there are physiological changes happening in the brain due to exposure of family violence which makes recovery more difficult and can lead to PTSD. The feelings and memories that a child has in a moment of stress can affect their feelings, beliefs and choices in a relationship and other areas of their life.

Areas that can be affected

Learning can be impacted by developmental, motor and speech delays as well as struggling to take in new information. This can result in behavior problems and overall difficulties with learning.

Most experts believe that children who are raised in abusive homes learn that violence is an effective way to resolve conflicts and problems. They may replicate the violence they witnessed as children in their adult relationships and parenting choices. Boys who witness their mothers’ abuse are more likely to batter their female partners as adults compared to boys raised in nonviolent homes and are more likely to exhibit externalizing behaviors like aggression. For girls, witnessing family violence may result in the belief that threats and violence are the norm in relationships and exhibit more internalizing behavior problems such as social withdrawal and depression.

Children from violent homes have higher risks of alcohol/drug abuse. The exposure to family violence can include fear of harm or abandonment, excessive worry or sadness, guilt inability to experience empathy or guilt, habitual lying, low frustration tolerance, emotional distancing, poor judgment, shame, and fear about the future. Compared with other kids, those who have witnessed family violence experience far greater incidence of insomnia, bed wetting, nightmares, self-harm, aggressive and antisocial behaviors, depression, PTSD, anxiety, bullying, assault, and substance abuse.

How you can help your child

The circumstances of family violence leave caregivers – emotionally and otherwise—unavailable and unresponsive. Both parents are not able to be as in tune with their children and thus are at a decreased capacity to recognize stress and danger which are protective factors that might increase a child’s resiliency. In addition to the exposure itself, other factors which influence impact, include the nature of the violence, age of the child, elapsed time since exposure, the child’s gender, and presence of physical or sexual abuse. There are protective factors that can mitigate the worst impacts, including a child’s literacy and overall intelligence, the extent to which the child is outgoing and socially competent, and whether the child has safe and supportive relationships with at least one influential adult. In so many cases, it is difficult for those outside of the family to know with sufficient clarity what is going on, and it is often difficult to know how best to intervene. With the appropriate help they can learn healthy ways to deal with their emotions and memories as they mature. The sooner you seek help for your child, the better their chances for becoming mentally and physically healthy adults.