Effects of Domestic Violence on Children

by Carol E Jordan (LilMrsJ)

It was reported in 1992 that 63% of children between the ages of 11 and 20 who were in prison, were there because they killed their mother's batterer.

Do statistics like this startle you? Do they make you think about the kind of situation the child must have been in to even think of murder as a solution? Sadly more children than you might think live in homes where domestic violence occurs on a regular basis.

Studies suggest that 3.3 - 10 million children witness some form of domestic violence annually1. Slightly more than half of female victims of intimate violence live in households with children under age 123. These children may be right next door to you, down the street, in your child's class at school. This may be the family that sits next to you in Church, or the cashier at the bank you speak to every week. Sometimes it is difficult to know which families live in fear of violence, while at other times it seems fairly obvious. It is important to know the signs that domestic violence is occurring in a home -- whether the children are immediately being physically assaulted or not.

In a national survey of more than 6,000 American families, 50 percent of the men who frequently assaulted their wives also frequently abused their children2. These men may not start out abusing their entire family. Often the abuse begins with yelling and then progresses towards physical violence. Men who treat their significant other in an abusive manner are very likely to also treat their children in the same manner. Regardless, the emotional scars from witnessing the abuse are enough to trigger Post Traumatic Stress Disorder years after the abuse has ceased.

With statistics like these we can all see that many children are involved in situations where they will witness violence or be involved in violence. This realization brings us to 3 questions:

  1. How can I know a child is a witness to or a victim of domestic violence?
  2. How does domestic violence affect a child when the child is not a direct victim of the violence?
  3. What can I do to help a child of domestic violence?

There are some very definite signs of domestic violence in a home. According to Children and Domestic Violence, the following may indicate that a child lives with domestic violence:

  • Unusual or unexplained injuries
  • Chronic illnesses, headaches, or stomachaches
  • Signs of neglect, such as poor hygiene or dirty clothing
  • Withdrawal (for example, playing alone and having no friends)
  • Depression or low self-esteem
  • Use of violence to solve conflicts
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep, or sleeping during school
  • Flashbacks or nightmares
  • Difficulty expressing emotions other than anger
  • School problems, including lengthy absences
  • Acting overly responsible (as if the child is the adult of the family)

Note: Signs may vary with different age groups and between boys and girls. These signs may also indicate other problems.

Even children who do not receive physical injury to domestic violence will carry emotional scars. These scars are not easily healed, nor are they always easily identified at the time the abuse occurs. Children of domestic violence may:

  • Develop physical and/or mental problems that can last a lifetime.
  • Grow up believing violence is a normal part of family life.
  • Be more likely to be abusive as adults if they are males, and more passive and withdrawn if they are females.
  • Live in daily fear of what to expect at home. Their lives may be filled with confusion, chaos, anger, and tension that can lead to lifelong fear and inability to trust others.
  • Be isolated by an abusive parent who shuts off the family from outside help or support.
  • Feel responsible for the abuse and powerless to stop it.

If you know a child who is a victim of violence (even if the child is not the direct target of the violence and only witnesses it) you may contact your local Department of Human Resources, Child Protective Services or your local police department.

You can also contact any of the following agencies for help if you have witnessed or are a victim of domestic violence:

National Domestic Violence Hotline
1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or TTY 1-800-787-3224

You can also visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline's website for more information on getting help in your state or online.

1. Carlson, Bonnie E. (1984). Children's observations of interpersonal violence. Pp. 147-167 in A.R. Roberts (Ed.) Battered women and their families (pp. 147-167). NY: Springer. Straus, M.A. (1992). "Children as witnesses to marital violence: A risk factor for lifelong problems among a nationally representative sample of American men and women." Report of the Twenty-Third Ross Roundtable. Columbus, OH: Ross Laboratories.
2. Strauss, Murray A, Gelles, Richard J., and Smith, Christine. 1990. Physical Violence in American Families; Risk Factors and Adaptations to Violence in 8,145 Families. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers
3. U.S. Department of Justice, "Violence by Intimates: Analysis of Data on Crimes by Current or Former Spouses, Boyfriends, and Girlfriends", March 1998

Carol E Jordan is the mother of 2 children. She has been a preschool teacher for 9 years and is working toward a CDA (Child Development Associate) an Early Childhood Education professional credential.

Copyright © Carol Jordan. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.