Children and Youth Exposed to Domestic Violence

All children and youth who live with domestic violence are affected by the experience. The nature and extent of the effects vary greatly. Some children are severely traumatized while others are able to cope well, and go on to live healthy, productive lives.

Children are not just eye witnesses to domestic violence. They are actively involved in trying to understand to the abuse, predict when it will happen, protect themselves, their mother or their siblings and worrying about the consequences. Fear and secrecy dominate family relationships, and survival becomes the primary goal of non-abusing family members. The focus on making it through each day may leave little room for fun and relaxation, meeting basic needs or planning for the future.

Children are exposed to domestic violence in many different ways:

  • Seeing mother threatened, demeaned or battered
  • Being in the middle of an assault by accident, because the abuser intends it, or because the child tries to intervene
  • Overhearing conflict and battering
  • Seeing the aftermath, such as mother’s injuries and trauma reactions
  • Living in a household dominated by tension and fear
  • Being raised by parents whose ability to care for them is compromised by domestic violence
  • Being used and manipulated by the abuser to hurt the battered parent
  • Suffering the consequences of economic abuse

Effects of exposure to domestic violence can include:

  • Believing the abuse is their fault
  • Turning against mother or father or having ambivalent feelings about both parents
  • Feeling that they are alone, that there is no one who understands them
  • Being afraid to talk about the abuse or express their feelings
  • Developing negative core beliefs about themselves and others
  • Developing unhealthy coping and survival reactions, such as mental health or behavior problems
  • Believing that the world is a dangerous and unpredictable place
  • Being isolated from people who might find out about the abuse or offer help

Children and youth also learn lessons such as:

  • Violence and coercion are normal and justifiable.
  • Abusive tactics are effective ways of getting what you want.
  • There are two ways to solve problems: aggression and passivity.
  • Victims are responsible for what happens to them.
  • People who hurt others don’t face consequences for their actions.
  • It’s OK to blame problems on someone else.
  • People who are supposed to take care of you cannot always be trusted.
  • Women are not worthy of respect.

Teenagers (13–18 years)
Older children may exhibit the most behavioral changes as a result of exposure to violence. Depending on their circumstances, teenagers may:

  • Talk about the event all the time or deny that it happened
  • Refuse to follow rules or talk back with greater frequency
  • Complain of being tired all the time
  • Engage in risky behaviors
  • Sleep more or less than usual
  • Increase aggressive behaviors
  • Want to be alone, not even wanting to spend time with friends
  • Experience frequent nightmares
  • Use drugs or alcohol, run away from home, or get into trouble with the law

Witnessing domestic violence can have negative effects on children’s development. Exposure to domestic violence, like other toxic stressors, can interfere with a child’s healthy brain development. This can lead to altered stress response, difficulty paying attention, hyper-startle response, and other problems. The potential symptoms childhood exposure to domestic violence can be characterized as externalized or internalized symptoms. Externalized symptoms are more visible and often manifest as behavioral problems. Internalized symptoms are less visible and more likely to be characterized as mental health problems.

Externalized symptoms of children’s exposure to domestic violence include:

  • Aggression
  • Lower social competence, including less empathy with others
  • Lower verbal, cognitive and motor abilities
  • Restlessness, impulsivity and difficulty concentrating
  • Behavioral and academic difficulties in school
  • Immaturity, delays in development and regression to earlier developmental stages

Internalized symptoms of children’s exposure to domestic violence include:

  • Depression, anxiety and hyper-vigilance
  • Fearful, withdrawn and inhibited behavior
  • Lower self esteem
  • Shame and feeling responsible for the abuse
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Long term effects of exposure to domestic violence include a higher risk for alcohol and drug abuse, sexual acting out, running away, and suicide. Boys who grow up with domestic abuse are more likely to abuse their intimate partners, and girls are less likely to seek help if they become victims in their adult relationships.

Information Source:

This information was developed by the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

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