Domestic violence and its impact on children

July 10, 2017

When thinking about issues affecting children’s wellbeing, domestic violence might not come to mind – and yet there is a significant link. Domestic violence is a pattern of coercive behavior that includes acts, or threatened acts, to gain power and control over a current or former spouse, intimate partner or person with whom the perpetrator shares a child in common. This post is the first of a three-part series exploring how people who use abusive behaviors against an intimate partner may negatively impact children. 

Part 1: Witnessing abuse of their primary caregiver

Children of all ages may witness acts of abuse targeted at their primary caregiver. As noted in ‘Little Eyes, Little Ears: How violence against a mother shapes children as they grow,’ even infants and toddlers may hear abuse occurring, may see the abuse, or may notice the aftermath of an abusive incident (e.g., caregiver crying, tension in the home, disheveled belongings, injuries). 

When a child is a direct witness to domestic violence, the child is likely to experience distress and is at a heightened risk of being unintentionally injured – for example if being held during an abusive incident, trying to intervene, or being in the pathway of violence. Children who are in near proximity, such as those who hear an abusive incident but do not see it happen, may experience a number of difficult emotions, including fear, confusion, anger, guilt, and worry. Noticing afterwards that an abusive incident happened may result in these same difficult emotions, and the child’s thoughts and feelings may be preoccupied with the ‘fight’ for long after the incident stops.

Each child who is exposed to domestic violence will have their own reactions to the abuse they witness. Even within the same family, siblings can have differing patterns of exposure and experience differing responses. Some of the variables shown to affect how a child may be impacted include the duration, severity, and proximity of the abuse. When abusive acts continue to occur over longer spans of time, when the abuse is severe (i.e. resulting in caregiver injuries, involving weapons), and when a child is near to abusive behavior, the child is more likely to experience negative impacts. 

Negative impacts for children who witness abuse will vary by age and developmental stage.

As domestic violence and child development expert Dr. Betsy McAlister Groves notes, “All of the signs and symptoms that are associated with traumatic stress – hyperarousal, re-experiencing, sleep disturbances, avoidance – have negative effects on children’s capacity to focus and learn in school” (link, p.4).

The good news is that children also show remarkable resiliency and an ability to heal from the effects of witnessing domestic violence.  In fact, the number one resiliency factor for children is having a close relationship with a caregiving adult!  Parents who are surviving domestic violence are incredibly important to their children, and while finding safety from abuse is challenging, when parents and kids are safe, they can thrive. 

Click on the hyperlinked words to see resources for safety planning and for parenting after abuse.

Reference: The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.


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