Children and Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is a pattern of behavior that is used by one person to control the other person in a relationship. While many resources focus on the effects on the relationship, it is important to understand the impact that domestic violence has on children. Children can experience domestic violence in different ways and have a variety of behaviors to express their feelings.

How Children May Respond to Domestic Violence

Children can feel anxious from observing domestic violence and feel unsafe because they are unsure of when the next violent act may occur or what triggers the violent act. Due to this uncertainty, they can have a constant sense of worry for themselves and their family.

Children may feel rage and anger at family members if they believe they are triggering abuse.

Children may isolate themselves and withdraw from normal activities because of the trauma that they have experienced.

Some children may be able to find an outlet to express their concerns and feelings about domestic violence occurring around them. These outlets can include family, friends, teachers, counselors, cultural communities, faith communities, journals, or other options. However, some children feel as if they must keep their trauma to themselves or do not feel comfortable in expressing their thoughts.

For Children Ages 5 and Under

Children in this age range often react to episodes of violence in their family by returning to behaviors exhibited at earlier ages (these are called regressive behaviors), such as thumb-sucking, bedwetting, and fear of darkness. Other typical reactions can include any number of the following:

  • Difficulty developing the attachment to one or both parents that is critical to their development, which, in extreme cases, can result in a “failure to thrive” or an extreme fear of being separated from one or
    both parents
  • Excessive clinginess
  • Crying, whimpering, screaming
  • Extreme fear
  • Immobility or aimless motion
  • Trembling
  • Frightened facial expressions
  • Withdrawal from interactions with others
  • Shrinking away from physical contact
  • Acting out abusive behavior in play

For Children Ages 6 – 11

Children in this age range who are growing up in violent homes are at great risk for recreating the abusive behaviors they have seen and behaving abusively and violently with their siblings and peers. Regressive behaviors are not uncommon for children ages 6 to 11, as well. Other reactions that are typical include:

  • Disruptive behavior
  • Inability to pay attention
  • Sleep problems, including nightmares
  • Outbursts of anger and fighting
  • Irrational fears
  • Difficulties at school, including refusal to attend
  • Complaints of aches and pains, such as stomach aches, headaches, or muscle pain, that have no medical basis
  • Feelings and expressions of guilt
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Emotional numbing or “flatness”

For Adolescents Ages 12 to 17

The adolescent may feel extreme guilt over not being able to prevent the domestic violence from occurring, or, in some cases, feeling they are somehow to blame for the family’s problems. They may also experience
reactions similar to those of adults, including:

  • Flashbacks to the episodes of domestic violence
  • Sleep problems, including nightmares
  • Emotional numbing
  • Depression
  • Substance abuse
  • Problems with peers
  • Anti-social behavior
  • Risk-taking behavior, such as driving recklessly
  • Self-destructive behavior, for example drug and/or alcohol abuse, self-mutilation or eating disorders
  • Withdrawal and isolation
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Physical complaints that have no medical basis
  • Difficulties at school, including academic decline and/or refusal to attend

Lasting Impressions

Children model what they see and many of the long-term effects of growing up in violent homes can be

  • They learn, through their parents’ and their own experience, to equate love with pain and/or violence.
  • Abusive behavior and violence can become their primary method of conflict resolution.
  • Studies indicate children of abusive families are at greater risk for developing self-destructive problems with alcohol and/or other drugs.
  • There is growing evidence that as child-witnesses to domestic violence grow up, they have a 74% higher likelihood of committing assault as adults.
  • No studies or statistics can ever possibly measure the life-long impact domestic violence can have on a child’s self-esteem, capacity to trust others, and how they approach all relationships throughout their life, including how they someday parent their own children.

What Can I Say to Help a Child?

  • “This abuse was not your fault.”
  • “You can come to me if you want to talk.”
  • “I am here to listen and support you.”
  • “I am sorry that you had to experience that.”
  • “We can make a plan to help you if this happens again.”
  • “You are important and I care about you.”
  • “I can find adults that can help keep you safe.”
  • “What can I do to help you through this time?”