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Effects of domestic violence on children

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Title: Effects of domestic violence on children  
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Subject: Domestic violence, Domestic violence and pregnancy, Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, Economic abuse, Sin by Silence
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Effects of domestic violence on children

Effects of domestic violence on children, result from witnessing domestic violence in a home where one of their parents are abusing the other parent, plays a tremendous role on the well-being and developmental growth of children witnessing the violence. In 2009 in the Philippines, it was estimated that as many as 7 to 14 million children were exposed to domestic violence[1] with about 3.3 million children exposed to domestic violence in their homes every year.[2]

Children who witness domestic violence in the home often believe that they are to blame, live in a constant state of fear and are 15 times more likely to be victims of child abuse. Close observation during an interaction can alert providers to the need for further investigation and intervention, such as[3] dysfunctions in the physical, behavioral, emotional, and social areas of life, and can aid in early intervention and assistance for child victims.

Symptoms children may have while witnessing

Physical symptoms

In general, children who witness domestic violence in the home can suffer a tremendous amount of physical symptoms along with their emotional and behavioral state of despair. These children may complain of general aches and pain, such as headaches and stomach aches. They may also have irritable and irregular bowel habits, cold sores, and they may have problems with bedwetting. These complaints have been associated with depressive disorders in children, a common emotional effect of domestic violence. Along with these general complaints of not feeling well, children who witness domestic violence may also appear nervous, as previously mentioned, and have short attention spans. These children display some of the same symptoms as children who have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. On the reverse, these children may show symptoms of fatigue and constant tiredness. They may fall asleep in school due to the lack of sleep at home. Much of their night may be spent listening to or witnessing violence within the home. Children of domestic violence victims are frequently ill, and suffer from poor personal hygiene. Children who witness domestic violence also have a tendency to partake in high risk play activities, self-abuse, and suicide.[2]


The physical effects of domestic violence on children, different than the effects of direct abuse, can start when they are fetus in their mother's womb, can result in low infant birth weights, premature birth, excessive bleeding, and fetal death, due to the mother's physical trauma and emotional stress. Increased maternal stress during the times of abuse, especially when combined with smoking and drug abuse, can also lead to premature deliveries and low weight babies.[4]


Infant children who are present in the home where domestic violence occurs often fall victim to being "caught in the crossfire." They may suffer physical injuries from unintentional trauma as their parent is battered. Infants may be inconsolable and irritable, have a lack of responsiveness secondary to lacking the emotional and physical attachment to their mother, suffer from developmental delays, and have excessive diarrhea from both trauma and stress.

Older children

Physical effects of witnessing domestic violence in older children are less evident than behavioral and emotional effects. The trauma that children experience when they witness domestic violence in the home, plays a major role in their development and physical well being. The children, however, will exhibit physical symptoms associated with their behavioral or emotional problems, such as being withdrawn from those around them, becoming non-verbal, and exhibiting regressed behaviors such as being clingy and whiney. Anxiety often accompanies a physical symptom in children who witness domestic violence in the home. These children harbor feelings of guilt, blame, and are constantly on edge. They may startle at the smallest things, such as a car door slamming or a glass cup accidentally falling to the floor. If their anxiety progresses to more physical symptoms, they may show signs of tiredness from lack of sleep and weight and nutritional changes from poor eating habits.[5]


Children who witness domestic violence in the home should be assessed for the physical effects and physical injuries. Some physical findings may be difficult to evaluate, like changes in their eating habits, sleep patterns, or bowel patterns should be further examined or questioned by someone whom they trust.

Behavioral symptoms

Children exposed to domestic violence are likely to develop behavioral problems, such as regressing, exhibiting out of control behavior,[2] and imitating behaviors. Children may think that violence is an acceptable behavior of intimate relationships and become either the abused or the abuser. Some warning signs are bed-wetting, nightmares, distrust of adults, acting tough, having problems becoming attached to other people and isolating themselves from their close friends and family. Another behavioral response to domestic violence may be that the child may lie in order to avoid confrontation and excessive attention getting.

Adolescents are in jeopardy of academic failure, school drop-out, and substance abuse.[6]

Their behavior is often guarded and secretive about their family members and they may become embarrassed about their home situation. Adolescents generally don't like to invite friends over and they spend their free time away from home. Denial and aggression are their major forms of problem solving. Teens cope with domestic violence by blaming others, encountering violence in a relationship, or by running away from home.[6]

Teen dating violence

An estimated 1/5 to 1/3 of teenagers subject to viewing domestic violent situations experience teen dating violence, regularly abusing or being abused by their partners verbally, mentally, emotionally, sexually and/or physically. 30 to 50% of dating relationships can exhibit the same cycle of escalating violence in their marital relationships.[7]

Physical symptoms

Physical symptoms are a major affect on children due to parental domestic violence. In a study, 52% of 59 children yelled from another room, 53% of 60 children yelled from the same room, a handful actually called someone for help and some just became significantly involved themselves during the abusive occurrence. When the unfortunate violent situation is at its peak and a child tries to intervene, logically we would have thought that in order to save their child from harm, parents would control themselves, however statistics show otherwise. It is said that about 50% of the abusers also end up abusing their children. Another alarming statistic is that 25% of the victims of the abusive relationship also tend to get violent with their children. The violence imposed to these innocent children can in some cases be life threatening. If a mother is pregnant during the abuse, the unborn child is at risk of life long impairments or at risk of life itself. Researchers have studied, amongst perinatal and neonatal statistics, mothers who experience domestic violence had more than double the risk of child mortality.

Emotional symptoms

Children exposed to violence in their home often have conflicting feelings towards their parents; For instance, distrust and affection often coexist for the abuser. The child becomes overprotective of the victim and feels sorry for them.[8]

They often develop anxiety, fearing that they may be injured or abandoned, that the child's parent being abused will be injured, or that they are to blame for the violence that is occurring in their homes.[9] Grief, shame, and low self esteem are common emotions that children exposed to domestic violence experience.[9]


Depression is a common problem for children who experience domestic violence. The child often feels helpless and powerless. More girls internalize their emotions and show signs of depression than boys. Boys are more apt to act out with aggression and hostility.[9] Witnessing violence in the home can give the child the idea that nothing is safe in the world and that they are not worth being kept safe which contributes to their feelings of low self-worth and depression.[10]


Some children act out through anger and are more aggressive than other children. Even in situations that do not call for it, children will respond with anger.[11]

Post traumatic stress disorder

Post traumatic stress disorder can result in children from exposure to domestic violence. Symptoms of this are nightmares, insomnia, anxiety, increased alertness to the environment, having problems concentrating, and can lead to physical symptoms.[12] If the child experiences chronic early maltreatment within the caregiving relationship, then Complex Trauma Complex post traumatic stress disorder can result.

Role reversal

There is sometimes role reversal between the child and the parent and the responsibilities of the victim who is emotionally and psychologically dysfunctional are transferred to the child.[13] In this situation, the parents treat their child as a therapist or confidant, and not as their child. They are forced to mature faster than the average child. They take on household responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning, and caring for younger children.[14] The responsibilities that they take on are beyond normal assigned chores, and are not age appropriate. The child becomes socially isolated and is not able to participate in activities that are normal for a child their age. The parentified child is at risk for becoming involved in rocky relationships because they have been isolated and are not experienced at forming successful relationships. Also they tend to become perfectionists because they are forced to live up to such high expectations for their parents.[15]

Social symptoms

Children exposed to domestic violence frequently do not have the foundation of safety and security that is normally provided by the family. The children experience a desensitization to aggressive behavior, poor anger management and problem solving skills, and learn to engage in exploitative relationships.[2]

  • Symptoms include isolation from friends and relatives in an effort to stay close to siblings and victimized parent.[2]
  • The adolescent may display these symptoms by joining a gang or becoming involved in dating relationships that mimic the learned behavior.[2]

Children exposed to domestic violence require a safe nurturing environment and the space and respect to progress at their own pace. The caretaker should provide reassurance and an increase sense of security by providing explanations and comfort for the things that worry the children, like loud noises.[8] The children should develop and maintain positive contact with significant others such as distant family members.[8] All family members are encouraged to become involved in community organizations designed to assist families in domestic violence situations.

Effects on infants and toddlers

Frightened toddler

Children exposed to domestic violence at infancy often experience an inability to bond and form secure attachments, often resulting in intensified startle reactions and an inhibited sense of exploration and play.[8]

Children may portray a wide range of reactions to the exposure of domestic violence in their home. The preschool and kindergarten child does not understand the meaning of the abuse and may believe they did something wrong, this self-blame may cause the child feelings of guilt, worry, and anxiety.[16] Younger children do not have the ability to express their feelings verbally and these emotions can cause behavioral problems. They may become withdrawn, non-verbal, and have regressed behaviors such as clinging and whining. Other common behaviors for a child being a victim of domestic violence are eating and sleeping difficulty, and concentration problems.[17]

Preschoolers living with violence internalize the learned gender roles associated with victimization, for instance seeing males as perpetrators and females as victims.[8] This symptom presents itself as the preschooler imitating learned behaviors of intimidation and abuse. The preschooler may present with aggressive behavior, lashing out, defensive behavior, or extreme separation anxiety from the primary caregiver.[18]

Statistics show that a child who witnesses violence between their parents or guardian is more likely to carry on violent behaviors in their own adult lives. “Even when child witnesses do not suffer physical injury, the emotional consequences of viewing or hearing violent acts are severe and long-lasting. In fact, children who witness violence often experience many of the same symptoms and lasting effects as children who are victims of violence themselves, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)”. Also in the article Breaking the Cycle of Violence “it is clearly in the best interest of the child and criminal justice system to handle child victims and witnesses in the most effective and sensitive manner possible. A number of studies have found the following: reducing the number of interviews of children can minimize psychological harm to child victims (Tedesco & Schnell, 1987); testifying is not necessarily harmful to children if adequate preparation is conducted (Goodman et al., 1992; Oates et al., 1995; Whitcomb, Goodman, Runyon, and Hoak, 1994); and, having a trusted person help the child prepare for court and be with the child when he or she testified reduced the anxiety of the child (Henry, 1997).[19]

Effects on witnessing infants

  • Cries excessively, screaming
  • Diarrhea
  • Digestive problems
  • Failure to thrive
  • Feeding and sleeping routines are disrupted
  • Frequent illness
  • Injuries while caught in the crossfire
  • Irritability, sadness, anxiety
  • Low weight
  • Need for attachment is disrupted
  • No appetite
  • Sleeping problems
  • Startles easily[20]

Effects on witnessing toddlers

  • Insomnia/parasomnias
  • Lack feelings of safety
  • Regressive behaviors
  • Separation/stranger anxiety

Dual exposure

It is important to note that children exposed to domestic violence are more at risk for other forms of maltreatment such as physical abuse and neglect. Research suggests that parents who are violent with one another are at higher risk for physically abusing their children.[21] Recent research has proposed that the consequences of child abuse and domestic violence exposure are often similar and mimic one another. Children who are abused and exposed to domestic violence exhibit emotional, psychological, and behavioral consequences that are almost identical to one another. In fact, some researchers refers to this dual exposure as the "double whammy" effect because children are receive double exposure to traumatic events and thus react twofold to the abuse and exposure to domestic violence. Emotionally children who experience the "double whammy" effect can exhibit fear, guilt, isolation, and low self-esteem. Additional psychological outcomes for these children include depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).[22] Children who experience dual exposure to both physical abuse and domestic violence possess more behavioral problems than those who experience only one or the other.[23]

The long term effects of dual exposure in young children can have very negative outcomes later in life. These outcomes have been documented as leading to behavioral problems including: school dropout, violence, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, eating disorders, and even suicide attempts.[22] A study following children from preschool through adolescence found that young children exposed to domestic violence and child abuse were more likely to experience anti-social behaviors in their adolescence. Young children exposed to both domestic violence and child abuse were also more likely to commit an assault and participate in delinquent behavior in their adolescence than those not exposed at all.[23] Lastly, the Adverse Childhood Experiences study (ACE) found a connection between multiple categories of childhood trauma (e.g., child abuse, household dysfunction including domestic violence, and child neglect) and health/behavioral outcomes later in life. The more traumas a child was exposed to, the greater risk for disabilities, social problems and adverse health outcomes. More recently, researchers have used elements of this model to continue analysis into different aspects of trauma and stressful experiences and later development.[24]

Ways to help

Early intervention is one of the best ways to counteract the effects of witnessing abuse. Ways to help children who have witnessed domestic abuse include:

  • Arrange school age children to receive counseling from professionals at their school, often school counselors.
  • Experiement with various types of counseling: play therapy, peer support groups, anger management classes and safety programs to teach kids how to extract themselves from dangerous situations.
  • Help children find a loving and supportive adult to introduce to the child and encourage the child to spend as much time regularly with the adult. This may include a trusted family member or community advocate. Family Violence Defense Fund reports that the single most important ingredient to help children heal and develop resiliency is the presence of a loving adult.
  • Provide a safe environment that does not include violence in any form after a child has witnessed domestic violence.
  • Find ways to discipline that do not involve hitting, name-calling, yelling, or any form of verbally aggressive behavior.
  • Help children create a sense of safety by having scheduled routines, such as regular meals and homework times.

See also


  1. ^ Edleson, J. L., Ellerton, A. L., Seagren, A. E., Kirchberg, S. O., & Ambrose, A. T. (2007). Assessing child exposure to adult domestic violence. Children and Youth Services Review, 29(7), 961-971.
  2. ^ a b c d e f The Effects of Domestic Violence on Children. Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
  3. ^ Stacy, W. and Shupe, A. The Family Secret. Boston, MA. Beacon Press, 1983.
  4. ^ Horner, G. (2005). Domestic violence and children: effects of domestic violence on children. Journal of Pediatric Health Care, 19(4):206-212.
  5. ^ Volpe, J. (1996). Effects of Domestic Violence on Children and Adolescents: An Overview. American Academy of Experts in Trauma Stress, Inc.
  6. ^ a b How are children affected by domestic violence? Custody Preparation for Moms. 2002 - 2009.
  7. ^ Sexual Assault Survivor Services (SASS) Facts about domestic violence. (1996)]
  8. ^ a b c d e Baker, L.L., Jaffe, P.G., Ashbourne, L. (2002). Children Exposed to Domestic Violence.
  9. ^ a b c Edleson, J.L., (1999) Problems Associated with Children's Witnessing of Domestic Violence.
  10. ^ Miller, D. (2010) Children's Exposure to Violence - Community Violence, Domestic Violence - General Effects.
  11. ^ Stannard, L. (2009). Emotional Effects of Domestic Violence on Children.
  12. ^ An Abuse, Rape and Domestic Violence Aid and Resource Collection. (2008). Long Term Effects of Domestic Violence.
  13. ^ Parentification Research.The Empirical Study of Parentification.
  14. ^ Newton, C.J. (2001). Effects of Domestic Violence on Children and Teenagers.
  15. ^ Campbell, J. (2010). Parentification.
  16. ^ Graham-Bermann, S. (1994). Preventing domestic violence. University of Michigan research information index.
  17. ^ Schechter DS, Willheim E (2009). The Effects of Violent Experience and Maltreatment on Infants and Young Children. In CH Zeanah (Ed.). Handbook of Infant Mental Health—3rd Edition. New York: Guilford Press, Inc. pp. 197-214.
  18. ^ Schechter DS, Willheim E, McCaw J, Turner JB, Myers MM, Zeanah CH (2011). The relationship of violent fathers, posttraumatically stressed mothers, and symptomatic children in a preschool-age inner-city pediatrics clinic sample. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 26(18), 3699-3719.
  19. ^ Office of Victims of Crime, OVC Monograph. Breaking the Cycle of Violence Recommendations to Improve the Criminal Justice Response to Child Victims and Witnesses. Retrieved, from
  20. ^ Crisis Intervention Center
  21. ^ Dong, M; Anda, R.F.; Felitti, V.J.; Dube, S.R.; Williamson, D.F.; Thompson, T.J.; Loo, C.M.; Giles, W.H. (January 2004). "The Interrelatedness of Multiple Forms of Childhood Abuse, Neglect, and Household Dysfunction". Child Abuse & Neglect 28 (7): 771–84.  
  22. ^ a b Herrenkohl, T. I.; Sousa, C.; Tajima, E. A.; Herrenkohl, R. C.; Moylan, C. A. (January 2008). "Intersection of Child Abuse and Children's Exposure to Domestic Violence". Trauma Violence and Abuse 2: 84–99. 
  23. ^ a b Sousa, C., Herrenkohl, T. I., Moylan, C. A., Tajima, E. A., Klika, J. B., Herrenkohl, R. C., & Russo, M. J. (January 2011). "Longitudinal study on the effects of child abuse and children's exposure to domestic violence, parent-child attachments, and antisocial behavior in adolescence". Journal of Interpersonal Violence 26 (1): 111–136.  
  24. ^ Dube, S. R.; Felitti, V. J.; Dong, M.; Giles, W. H.; Anda, R. F. (January 2003). "The impact of adverse childhood experiences on health problems: evidence from four birth cohorts dating back to 1900". Preventive Medicine 37 (3): 268–77.  

Further reading

  • Breaking the Cycle Consulting the leading voice on adolescent to parent abuse and violence:
  • Project Making Medicine. Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. 2005. Oklahoma City, OK.
  • How are children affected by domestic violence? Custody Preparation for Moms.
  • Sexual Assault Survivor Services (SASS). (1996). Facts about domestic violence.
  • Hooper, L. M. Expanding the discussion regarding parentification and its varied outcomes: Implications for mental health research and practice. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 29(2), 322-337.
  • Hooper, L. M., Marotta, S. A., & Lanthier, R. P. (2008). Predictors of growth and distress following parentification among college students. The Journal of Child and Family Studies, 17, 693-705.
  • Parentification Research
  • UNICEF - Behind Closed Doors: The Impact of Domestic Violence on Children
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