Abuse Wiki

The effects of witnessing domestic violence on children

Children witnessing domestic violence is when children are living in a home where one of their parents are abusing the other parent. Domestic violence not only affects its adult victims, but it also plays a tremendous role on the well-being and developmental growth of children witnessing the violence. In 2009, it was estimated that as many as 7 to 14 million children are exposed to domestic violence, falling victim to its effects in the United States.[1] Many children who witness domestic violence in the home believe that they are to blame, and live in a constant state of fear. These children also fall victim to physical abuse, as well. It has been shown that in families where domestic violence is present, child abuse is 15 times more likely to occur.[2] Many signs and symptoms present in children living with violence. Close observation during interaction can alert providers to the need for further investigation and intervention. These signs and symptoms appear as effects of children being exposed to domestic violence. The children have already experienced the violence causing dysfunctions in the physical, behavioral, emotional, and social areas of life. Adequate identification of the effects of children exposed to domestic violence in the home can aid in early intervention and assistance for child victims.

Symptoms children may have while witnessing

Physical Symptoms Although children present in homes where domestic violence occurs are likely to suffer physical abuse as well, the physical effects of being the witness to domestic violence are quite different than symptoms of abuse, itself. The physical effects of domestic violence on children can start while the fetus is present in the mother's womb. Studies have shown that low infant birth weights are associated with both the direct physical trauma inflicted on the fetus' mother, as well as the emotional stress that is placed on the victim of the domestic abuse. Direct physical abuse on the female victim can lead to multiple physical injuries associated with the infant child, ranging from premature birth, excessive bleeding, and even fetal death. 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.[3] 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.

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 - like behavior is also a common 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.[4]

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 death by suicide.[5] Children who witness domestic may show many physical symptoms of trauma, emotional stress, and possibly, physical abuse.

Children who witness domestic violence in the home should be assessed for the physical effects of the violence by everyone around them. It is easy to see the physical injuries if the domestic violence turns into child abuse, however, the other physical findings may be difficult to evaluate. Any child who has changes in their eating habits, sleep patterns, or bowel patterns should be further examined or questioned by someone whom they trust.

Behavioral Symptoms Domestic violence in the home affects children in different ways and the children exposed to this type of violence are likely to develop behavioral problems. Domestic violence can cause children to have regression with out of control behavior.[6] When a child is a witness of domestic violence, they often imitate behaviors. Children think that violence is an acceptable behavior of intimate relationships. They may develop a sense of social acceptance to this behavior and become the abused or the abuser.

Some warning signs of domestic violence in children may be bed-wetting or having nightmares. Some children may become distrusting of adults. The child may try to act tough and have problems letting other people into their life and there are some children that may even isolate 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. Their behavior is guarded and they are secretive about their family members. They get embarrassed about the home situation. Adolescents 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.[7] An estimated 1/5 to 1/3 of teenagers who are involved in dating relationships are regularly abusing or being abused by their partners verbally, mentally, emotionally, sexually and/or physically. 30 to 50 percent of dating relationships can exhibit the same cycle of escalating violence in marital relationships.[8]

Emotional Symptoms About 3.3 million children are exposed to domestic violence in their homes every year.[9] Not only are these children at risk for developing physical, behavioral, and social problems, but they are prone to develop emotional problems as well.

These children often have conflicting feelings towards their parents. Feelings of distrust and affection often coexist for the abuser. The child becomes overprotective of the victim and feels sorry for them.[10] Children exposed to domestic violence often develop anxiety. They fear that they may be injured during an altercation between their parents, or even fear that their parents will abandon them. Children also worry about the safety of the parent that is being abused. Many times children fear that they are to blame for the violence that is occurring in their homes. Grief, shame, and low self esteem are common emotions that children exposed to domestic violence experience. Depression is a common problem in these children. 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.[11] 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.[12] 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.[13] 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.[14] These children are not allowed a normal childhood. There is a 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. (see parentification.ua.edu) This is also known as parentification. 20,21 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.[15] 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.[16]

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.[17] The symptoms of children living with violence present differently at various ages of development.

School age children exposed to domestic violence present with an excessive worry of possible danger and feelings of resentment towards the perpetrating party.[10] Symptoms include isolation from friends and relatives in an effort to stay close to siblings and victimized parent.[17] Adolescent children present with a difficulty in trusting adults and engage in excessive social involvement to avoid volatile situations at home. The adolescent may display these symptoms by joining a gang or becoming involved in dating relationships that mimic the learned behavior.[17]

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, i.e. loud noises.[10] The children should develop and maintain positive contact with significant others such as distant family members.[10] All family members are encouraged to become involved in community organization’s designed to assist families in domestic violence situations.

Effects on Infants and Toddlers

Children exposed to domestic violence at infancy often experience an inability to bond and form secure attachments.[10] This presents itself in the infant having intensified startle reactions and an inhibited sense of exploration and play.[10]

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. The self-blame may cause the child feelings of guilt, worry, and anxiety.[18] Younger children do not have the ability to express their feelings verbally and these emotions can cause behavioral problems. The child 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.

Preschoolers living with violence internalize the learned gender roles associated with victimization; i.e. males as perpetrators and females as victims.[10] This symptom presents itself as the preschooler imitating learned behaviors of intimidation and abuse. The preschooler may present with aggressive behavior, lashing out, or defensive behavior, extreme separation anxiety from the primary caregiver.

Effects of infants witnessing domestic violence

  • Low weight
  • No appetite
  • Digestive problems
  • Irritability, sadness, anxiety
  • Sleeping problems
  • Startles easily
  • Cries excessively, screaming
  • Failure to thrive
  • basic need for attachment is disrupted
  • Routines around feeding/sleeping are disrupted
  • Injuries while caught in the crossfire
  • Frequent illness
  • Diarrhea[19]

Effects of toddlers witnessing domestic violence

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

Ways adults can help children who have witnesses abuse

  • The first thing that a parent can do to help the child who has witnessed domestic violence is to allow your child to be seen by professionals at their school. It is found that trained professionals, often school counselors, can provide the level of counseling that your child may need.
  • The second thing that needs to be done is to test out various types of counseling for children, this can include play therapy, peer support groups, anger management classes and safety programs to teach kids how to extract themselves from dangerous situations. Early intervention is one of the best ways to counteract the effects of witnessing abuse.
  • The third thing that can be done to help children is to find a loving and supportive adult to introduce to the child. Whether it is a 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. Encourage the child to spend as much time regularly with the adult.
  • After children who have witnessed violence in their families some one (parent and or, guardian) must provide a safe environment that does not include violence in any form. Also must find ways to discipline that do not involve hitting. Also refrain from name-calling and yelling, or any form of verbally aggressive behavior.
  • The last thing that should be done to help children who have witnessed violence in their families is to help the children help them create a sense of safety. To have regular meals and homework times can help demonstrate structure that was not there in the previous violent environment. With routines children can come to count on them and, the adult can keep promises made to the child.[20]

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. Link text]
  2. [Stacy, W. and Shupe, A. The Family Secret. Boston, MA. Beacon Press, 1983. Link text]
  3. [Horner, G. (2005). Domestic violence and children: effects of domestic violence on children. Journal of Pediatric Health Care, 19(4):206-212 Link text]
  4. [Volpe, J. (1996). Effects of Domestic Violence on Children and Adolescents: An Overview. American Academy of Experts in Trauma Stress, Inc. Link text]
  5. http://www.acadv.org/children.html Link text
  6. [1]
  7. [2]
  8. [SASS, 1996). Sexual Assault Survivor Services. Facts about domestic violence. SASS home page at http://www.portup.com]
  9. The Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The Effects of Domestic Violence on Children. Retrieved from http://www.acadv.org/children.html
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 10.6 Baker, L.L., Jaffe, P.G., Ashbourne, L. (2002). Children Exposed to Domestic Violence. Retrieved from http://www.lfcc.on.ca/ece-us.PDF
  11. Edleson, J.L., (1999) Problems Associated with Children's Witnessing of Domestic Violence. Retrieved from http://new.vawnet.org/category/Main_Doc.php?docid=392
  12. Miller, D. (2010) Children's Exposure to Violence - Community Violence, Domestic Violence - GENERAL EFFECTS. Retrieved from http://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/2531/Violence-Children-s-Exposure.html
  13. Stannard, L. (2009). Emotional Effects of Domestic Violence on Children. Retrieved from http://www.livestrong.com/article/18332-emotional-effects-domestic-violence-children/
  14. An Abuse, Rape and Domestic Violence Aid and Resource Collection. (2008). Long Term Effects of Domestic Violence. Retrieved from http://www.aardvarc.org/dv/effects.shtml
  15. Newton, C.J. (2001). Effects of Domestic Violence on Children and Teenagers. Retrieved from http://www.findcounseling.com/journal/domestic-violence/domestic-violence-children.html
  16. Campbell, J. (2010). Parentification. Retrieved from http://charactertherapist.blogspot.com/2010/06/t3-parentification.html
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence. (2008). The Effects of DV on Children. Retrieved from http://www.acadv.org/children.html
  18. [Graham-Bermann, S. (1994). Preventing domestic violence. University of Michigan research information index. UM-Research-WEB@umich.edu]
  19. www.crisisinterventioncenter.org
  20. www.livestrong.com
 21. http://parentification.ua.edu/

Further reading

1. Project Making Medicine. Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. 2005. Oklahoma City, OK.

2. http://www.custodyprepformoms.org/haca.htm

3. Sexual Assault Survivor Services (1996). Facts about domestic violence. SASS homepage at http://www.portup.com

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. http://parentification.ua.edu/