Vol. 16, No. 1 • November 2011

Domestic Violence's Impact on Children

by Kyra Gottesman Evans

Reprinted from the July-Aug. 1997 issue of the Children’s Advocate, published by Action Alliance for Children

Living with domestic violence can take a lasting toll on children. Nationwide, it is estimated that between 3.3 million and 10 million children are at risk of witnessing domestic violence each year. In families where there is domestic violence, most children—some estimate as many as 90 percent—see and hear it.

“Children are the secondary victims of domestic violence,” says Joan Suflita, director of children’s services at the Emergency Shelter Program/A Special Place in Hayward, CA. “It is quite clear that while the violence may not be directed at them, they are greatly affected by it.”

Researchers and caregivers find that children who have witnessed domestic violence often show similar emotional, physical, and behavioral disturbances as children who have themselves been victims of abuse. Many children from homes where parental abuse is prevalent suffer feelings of anger, fear, guilt, shame, confusion, and helplessness. Some become withdrawn and others unusually aggressive. Sleep disorders—insomnia, nightmares, bedwetting, etc.—are common. Children of battered mothers have high rates of emotional problems like depression and sometimes show delays in learning. Many develop physical symptoms including frequent colds, headaches, or upset stomachs. Some lose respect for the victim; others become extremely protective or dependent.

Confusion and Guilt
Children from homes with domestic violence, says Julie Murphy, director of children’s programs for Battered Women’s Alternatives (BWA) in Concord, CA, typically “suffer guilt, feeling that something is wrong with them or that they are responsible for the violence. ‘If only I’d done my homework on time. If only I’d gone to bed… Dad wouldn’t have hit Mom.’”

Children also struggle with conflicting emotions. Five-year-old Cathy, for example, said she hated Daddy for hurting Mommy, but she also missed and loved her daddy because he took her to the zoo.” They are very confused about how they could love and hate a person at the same time,” Murphy says. “It’s a lot for them to sort through.” These feelings of helplessness and confusion often lead children to attempt a coping strategy of denying that the violence is occurring. These children may be able to express their feelings only through play, art, and writing.

Shelter workers asked 10-year-old Jose, “What do you do when violence is going on at home?” He responded by drawing a picture of a hand dripping with blood, holding a gun. Beneath the picture he wrote: “I close my eyes. I hum to myself. I listen to music. I shake my head. I say out loud, ‘This is not happening.’” Beneath those words, he drew a snake.

Another common response is for children to focus on their concern for mom. Since infancy, 9-year-old Tara had witnessed the repeated abuse of her mother by her father. When she and her mother arrived at the shelter, Tara, an only child, was very verbal about what she had seen her father do to her mother. Tara was glad to be at the shelter, away from violence, but suspicious the safety wouldn’t last. She was deeply concerned about her mother, but didn’t trust her to stay away from the man who had beaten her for so many years.

“Her first concern was for her mother,” says Murphy. “She was very protective. This is not unusual. Many of the children feel protective of their mothers and worry about their own safety second or not at all.”

Reflecting Aggression
Many child witnesses to domestic violence copy the aggression they’ve seen in the batterer. Phil, for example, was seven when he arrived at BWA’s Rollie Mullen Shelter and Transitional Housing with his mother and two-year-old sister. He was extremely violent and verbally abusive toward his mother and the shelter’s female staff. “You can’t tell me what to do, you’re just women,” he told them. He called the other children names and physically assaulted them. When he finally began telling people how he felt, he said, “I’m really mad at mom because she kept me there with dad. I hate him, but I love him, too.”

“It’s not unusual for older male children to be angry with their mothers and side with the power person, the father, in the relationship,” says Murphy. “The fathers often sabotage the relationship between the older males and the mothers so that the child begins to think, ‘maybe Dad was justified.’”

The aggression children have witnessed also affects relationships with other children. “Their perspective on relationships is so skewed that they have no idea how to share or cooperate,” Murphy explains. “Their way of saying ‘hello’ may be to push someone down, then they don’t understand why the other child gets upset.

“Just a couple of years ago,” she adds, “I would have said it was only the male children who were aggressive, but now I see very aggressive males and females.”

When 5-year-old Nellie, for example, arrived at a shelter with her mother, her response to almost any physical contact, especially an accidental bump by another person, was to raise her fist. “Violence or aggression is such a quick response for these children,” says Madonna Datzman, coordinator for BWA’s transitional housing. “They often perpetuate the abusiveness they’ve witnessed at home with other children.”

Violent Fallout
Children of battered women are also more likely than other children to suffer physical and/or sexual abuse by their fathers or their mothers’ abusive boyfriends. Researchers estimate that at least half of men who batter their female partners also physically abuse the children. In addition, women are much more likely to use physical discipline with their children when they themselves are being battered, according to a report from the California State Justice Institute.

In most cases, says a report by the National Center on Women and Family Law, “removing the children from the batterer’s environment and placing them with the mother ends the child abuse.”

Lasting Harm
Witnessing domestic violence can also interfere with a child’s healthy development. “Children who witness violence early in life may view the world as unpredictable, possibly dangerous or chaotic. The basic attachment of the child to the adult is at risk. This early relationship development is profound and life-lasting,” Suflita explains. A 1985 survey by family-violence researchers Straus and Gelles, for example, found that these children tend to have problems ranging from difficulty in making friends to arrests for juvenile offenses.

Many researchers have found a connection between witnessing violence in childhood and using violence as an adult. A 1980 study by Straus, Gelles, and Steinmetz, for example, showed that boys who had seen their fathers attack their mothers were three times as likely to become batterers as boys raised in nonviolent homes.

“Living with violence can take a lasting toll on children and interfere with developmental growth,” conclude Amy Bamforth and Maxine Weinreb of Boston’s Child Witness to Violence Project. “Adults can mediate the consequences by being exquisitely aware of these effects and intervening to provide a safe environment.”

From the July-Aug. 1997 issue of the Children’s Advocate, published by Action Alliance for Children.

North Carolina Resources

Community resources are available to help children who have witnessed domestic violence. For more information, contact the Center for Child and Family Health (919/419-3474; http://www.ccfhnc.org) or the NC Child Treatment Program (http://www.cfar.unc.edu/Home/FindingTherapist.rails).

The North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence, through funding from the NC Department of Health and Human Services/Division of Social Services, is spearheading a project to address the needs and resources for children exposed to domestic violence. Through the Child Advocacy and Services Enhancement (CASE) Project, state and local agencies will devise a statewide plan to promote awareness around child exposure to domestic violence; increase the capacity of local agencies to serve children and youth using trauma-informed and culturally sensitive models; and influence public policy to build the research and resource base to meet the needs of children exposed to domestic violence. If you have questions about the CASE Project or are seeking assistance regarding domestic violence, please call the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence at 888/232-9124 or 919/956-9124.

Copyright 2011 Jordan Institute for Families