The Impact of Domestic Violence on Children

By Rebecca Lynn

When you hear about a domestic violence victim, what comes to mind? If you are like most, you picture the intimate partner who is being abused. You may think of someone who is emotionally and physically abused, financially unable to leave, and possibly afraid of removing their children from a two-parent home. Many victims are convinced by their abusers that leaving the relationship is not good for the kids, often this is their main reason for staying. However, research has shown that children are not only impacted by witnessing the abuse, but overlooked as additional victims of domestic violence. 

A parent’s instinct is to protect their children, but in a world where fear, anxiety, and abuse take place, it is hard to determine the best way to do that. One of the hardest struggles for victims leaving is related to their children. According to Behind Closed Doors: The Impact of Domestic Violence on Children, the extent of the issue is based on limited information. Domestic violence itself is under-reported and abusers are not always held accountable. The same goes for children witnessing domestic abuse. The number of impacted child victims is thought to be much more extensive than studies show.  

According to the Office of Women’s Health , more than 15 million children have witnessed domestic violence in their homes at least once. There are some effects that are age-specific, including:

  • Preschoolers:
    • Regression (bed-wetting, sucking thumb, baby talk, crying and whining),
    • Difficulty falling or staying asleep,
    • Signs of anxiety, terror, and covering ears when conflict or loud noises arise,
    • Separation anxiety.
  • School-Aged Children:
    • Guilt and self-blame,
    • Low self-esteem,
    • Lack of participation in school activities,
    • Lower grades,
    • Fewer friends,
    • Get in more trouble,
    • Frequent headaches and stomachaches.
  • Teens:
    • Acting out in negative ways, such as fighting, skipping school, bullying, getting in trouble with the law,
    • Risky behaviors, like drugs, alcohol, or unsafe sex,
    • Low esteem and trouble making friends,
    • Depression (more common in girls),
    • Aggression (more common in boys).

Findings have shown that there are multiple risks and both short and long term consequences related to witnessing domestic violence, regardless of age. Some of these include: 

  • Greater risk of repeating the domestic violence cycle as an adult–boys are 10 times more likely to be abusive in a relationship, and girls are six times more likely to be sexually abused in future relationships,
  • Higher risk for health problems, including; mental health issues (depression and anxiety), diabetes, obesity, heart disease, poor self-esteem, and additional problems,
  • A 45 to 60 percent higher risk of experiencing child abuse,
  • Verbal and learning difficulties,
  • Self-harm, aggression and animal abuse,
  • Increased risk of suicide.

Each child who witnesses domestic abuse will be impacted differently, based on age, the amount of abuse they witnessed, and their resiliency. Helping a child recover from experiencing domestic abuse can be a process. According to  Office of Women’s Health some of the things you can do to help children recover include:

  • Help them feel safe,
  • Talk to them about healthy relationships,
  • Acknowledge their fears,
  • Remind them it is not their fault,
  • Teach them the boundaries of an intimate partner relationship,
  • Help them become a part of a reliable support system,
  • Provide professional health (counseling or groups).

Parents who are still in abusive relationships may need help making a safety plan so that they are able to safely leave. Children need loving, stable, and safe homes over a home with domestic violence and two parents. Witnessing abuse does not only include seeing the abuse with their eyes, but also hearing it, and observing the aftermath (broken objects and injuries). Children are the key to helping reduce future adults that have witnessed abuse from continuing the cycle of domestic violence. 

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, there is help. You can visit the Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence website at www.breakthesilencedv.org or chat with one of our helpline advocates at 855-287-1777.

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