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Emotional Outcomes for Child Witnesses to Domestic Violence

young boy hugging his dog

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, or a time to begin to understand the effects of domestic violence, which have been researched extensively. Domestic violence is a social problem, affecting each member of a family—including kids, even when they are not the ones directly experiencing violence or aggression. Parents under stress can create children under stress. For children, witnessing domestic violence can lead to the development of many negative behavioral traits or mental health issues. Exposure alone can be traumatic.

Children who witness violence in the home are affected in ways similar to children who experience physical abuse. These children are also at a greater risk for both internalized and externalized negative behaviors, which can manifest socially, emotionally, psychologically, and/or behaviorally. Research shows us that boys exhibit more externalizing behavior, like fighting, bullying, lying, and cheating, while girls exhibit more internalized behaviors, such as anxiety, withdrawal, and depression.

In addition to potential problem behaviors, children also may experience psychological ramifications which lead to difficulties in school and lower scores on assessments of verbal, motor, and cognitive skills. Other limitations identified are slower cognitive development, lack of conflict resolution skills, limited problem-solving skills, and even a more rigid belief in gender stereotypes and reinforcement of male privilege.

When parents are engaged in any type of dynamic of domestic violence or aggression, their children can be at an extreme disadvantage when it comes to emotional development. They may tend to show higher levels of anxiety, lower self-esteem, and increased depression and anger. Violence puts a barrier between child and parent, making it difficult for children to develop a nurturing bond with either parent, which in turn can result in extreme anxiety or worry. The children may also display extreme separation anxiety when they go to school or when the parent(s) leaves. Studies show that separation anxiety even takes a physical toll, so children may complain of ailments like stomachache or headache as reasons they cannot go to school.

Exposure to domestic violence can create in the witness a sense of shame, guilt, and self-blame, conflicting feelings about a parent, fear of abandonment, symptoms of depression, and feelings of helplessness and powerlessness. With an increase in stress levels in the home, children can begin bedwetting again, lie to avoid confrontation, and have difficulty trusting others, especially adults. Stress is known to put any immune system in jeopardy—and children are no different. Stress and violence in the home can indirectly result in a short attention span, increased somatic complaints, and frequent illness.

Many children, as a result of exposure to domestic violence, become very secretive about their families and often do not invite friends to the home. They may begin to isolate and detach from the support that they could receive from those around them. Occasionally these behaviors are also linked to developmental delays and difficulty with emotional regulation, so that children feel shame, fear, confusion, and rage, often uncontrollable.

As these children age, it has been found that they also have higher levels of adult depression and trauma symptoms. Their reaction may be to internalize these symptoms, or they may cope with their stress by utilizing drugs or alcohol, fighting rules, ditching school, or running away. When child witnesses to domestic violence start dating, their relationships could have similar negative dynamics to ones their parents or guardians demonstrated. The risk of ending up in a controlling relationship or developing control issues is higher for these individuals.

It is important to note that not all children exposed to domestic violence will experience deficits or cope poorly. Some children demonstrate enormous resiliency and find ways to manage the tension in their homes. They might develop games or withdraw in order to manage the tension. Often they internalize the conflict and it resurfaces much later in life. In my practice, I see children who are high achievers with extreme expectations of themselves, who also have many outside interests, like sports or music. Outside interests and activities keep them out of the home most of the time, and these children tell me that this limits the amount of time that they don’t feel safe and gives them some sense of control in life.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) has created a website to help individuals who are in relationships plagued by domestic violence or provide people with resources to help family members and friends who are in abusive relationships.

References:

  1. Brown, B.V., and Bzostek, S. (2003) Violence in the lives of children. CrossCurrents, 1, Child Trends DataBank
  2. Edelson, J.L. (2006). Emerging Responses to Children Exposed to Domestic Violence. Harrisburg, PA: VAWnet, a project of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence/Pennslyvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Retrieved 0ct 3, 2013 from michbar.org/publicpolicy/pdfs/Legislators_ResponsesDV.pdf

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© Copyright 2013 by Teresa Collett, PsyD, therapist in Silverdale, Washington. All Rights Reserved.

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Comments
  • stella October 11th, 2013 at 11:06 AM #1

    I think that it is just as important to remember though that just because the kids don’t see it doesn’t mean that they aren’t affected by it. You might try to hide the bause, but they still hear the slaps and the screams, the tears and the yelling, and they see the scars that the adults carry around with them every day. So you might try to hide what goes on behind closed doors, but believe me, they still see very clearly what is going on and they are impacted by it in a very profound and negative way.

  • tricia October 11th, 2013 at 11:59 AM #2

    I’m wanting to share this article via facebook, but there’s no pin for it……

  • Carson October 12th, 2013 at 4:41 AM #3

    Why doesn’t this receive the same kind of recognition as breast cancer awareness? I know that this is typically what October signifies but had no idea that it also stood for domestic abuse awareess too.

  • kerri brooks October 14th, 2013 at 3:51 AM #4

    Don’t you know that there will be children who feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility when they witness this kind of abuse but it is beyond their control to change that? These children have their lives taken away from them, the freedom and ease of childhood by being a witness to abhorrent behavior by adults.

  • Daphne October 15th, 2013 at 10:30 AM #5

    For most of us who have witnessed abuse in our lives it is not until far down the road that we start to come to terms with just how seriously this has damaged us. We may have relationship issues with our family and in our own adult love lives. We may not know how to be a real friend because we spent so much of our childhood shutting others out for fear of them learning exactly what was going on in our own home. It really is very sad to think about how much of life I lostr out on because of the actions of both abusive parents but I have to look at it now as the fact that I am here and I am a survivor and that’s what counts. I refuse to live my life in the past any longer although I will be honest by saying that it still does haunt me, but it does encourage me to be a better parent than what I was given.

  • Brantley October 16th, 2013 at 3:11 PM #6

    you always hear people talking about how resilient kids are and I think that this is true up to a certain point but when it comes to something lile this I think that it is very hard for them to overcome

  • Estevan M December 27th, 2013 at 11:42 PM #7

    god bless you for the work that you do. As a passive kid in an home of domestic violence, I believe I internalized much of that violence, which led to poor relationship, socialization, and coping skills for me and probably greatly contributed to the development of depression and anxiety later in adolescent and adult life, and low self-esteem throughout. I believe I responded by focusing all my attention on school endeavors, whereby it augmented my rigidity and views of what it means to be a successful person, only to be brought down by feelings of underachievement and all the spiral of emotions that go along with depression. I still have hope however for a good life and am actively working towards it. Learn from it and try to be strong.

  • justme October 19th, 2014 at 6:36 PM #8

    It’s like you just pierced my heart & mind to tell my life story. Sad to know you are suffering (& I know how bad that hurt can be), but it’s nice to know I am not alone. Makes me think maybe I am not that crazy after all.
    Good luck to you.

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