Bystanders to Violence: The Child Witness

Toddler covering ears

Last month, we talked about violence—bullies, victims, and bystanders. I wrote:

“What happens to the bystander? The bystander takes in a portion of this poison too, whether or not he chooses to help, and if he hasn’t helped he has to bear the added guilt of not having come to someone’s aid.”

In the comments section following that entry, we talked about the effects of witnessing violence. I am grateful for the contributions of Ireland, Bradley, Sharon, Rachel, and Georgia for taking the point of view of adult bystanders. One participant, Chuck, saw through a child’s eyes. Today I would like to focus on that particular bystander—the child, who is indeed pretty much helpless to stop violence and is, in fact, hostage to it.

Although I was not able to find recent statistics estimating the numbers of children who witnessed acts of violence, it is generally agreed that domestic violence and public violence are so prevalent that, to me at least, the effect of witnessing violence is a public health problem, as is the experience of being treated with violence. Families that expose children to violent acts, even if the children are not directly, physically hurt, are perpetrating neglect and abuse on the children. The effects can be reduced to three main categories: 1) behavioral and emotional; 2) cognitive functioning and attitudes; and 3) longer-term. (Ziegler, R.G. and Weidner, D., 2004)

The behavioral and emotional effects can either point outward, when children become violent to others, or inward, when children become violent to themselves. Peer relationships and the ability to understand others’ feelings also are compromised. Cognitive functioning is not effected, but the individual is more likely to resort to aggressive means than to seek compromise, since aggression has been a model. After the children have grown up, they are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, and feelings of worthlessness. Needless to say, the ability to trust others is a problem, too.

Witnessing violence has clear outcomes for child development. One person in particular, a thoughtful man named Chuck, was generous enough to share his reactions as a child witness and the efforts he has made as an adult to counteract the effects. Chuck writes how he and other children exposed to violence learn that “openness, trust and a sense of one’s value as a human being feel unnatural.” It takes many years and hard work to learn that both the world and the self in it can be different. As with other issues, silence can equal death or death of the spirit; fear and shame are effective muzzles. And a child feels abandoned in the void when there is no one to help.

It’s not hard for an adult to spot those in a group of children who are hurting, but it takes someone special to step up and help out. Teachers, neighbors, other relatives, family friends, all have the opportunity—but they have to have the courage to take the initiative, as the other contributors to this discussion eloquently pointed out.

Chuck is thankful for the space is providing him. “Thanks Lynn for creating this space, allowing me to share and hearing what I had to say, this is for me absolutely invaluable.”

I’d like to thank Chuck for openly writing about his feelings and his experience as a child growing up and having to deal with domestic violence. He writes: “Thankfully, speaking up against domestic abuse is no longer taboo and domestic terrorism is no longer widely held to be a private matter. I am grateful that society has made great strides in this area.”

I invite those who are reading this blog to join the conversation.

Suggested resources:

  1. Ziegler, R.G. and D. Weidner. Interventions with parents to support the parental holding environment to permit the debriefing of children. J. Infant Child Adolescent. Psychotherapy., 3:185-202. 2004.

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lynn Somerstein, PhD, RYT, Object Relations Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • evan

    October 19th, 2012 at 4:58 AM

    It’s one thing to have a child witness the occassional argument between parents. This happens, and they actually need to be able to see that parents can argue and disagree but that they can also agree to disagree sometimes and make up without there being a huge rift created in the family.

    It is quite another to have a child witness real violence against another person. What are they supposed to make of this? We tell them not to scream or yell and hit, and here they could have to watch their parents do the same exact thing that they are being told not to do.

    It can be very confusing an ddangerous for them to live in a situation like this. It is definitely something that we don’t want any child to have to be a part of.

  • Diego

    October 19th, 2012 at 10:23 AM

    Divorces and domestic conflicts are rising. So I can only see the number of children being exposed to
    violence and conflict increasing. Interesting to see that although domestic violence is not pushed under the carpet anymore, there are still so many cases of it.

  • Tim

    October 19th, 2012 at 10:44 AM

    how unfair to do this to a child
    selfish and unfair
    just don’t have kids if this is what you are going to subject them to

  • Tyler Teague

    October 20th, 2012 at 5:21 AM

    In a perfect world kids would never witness this kind of violence and bahavior.

    But is the world perfect? No.

    Even if they don’t see this at home, who’s to say that they don’t see this in their neighborhood, at school, or in the movies and TV shows that they see?

    Many parents are trying to do the best that they can to shelter their children from ever having to confront this, but the reality of today’s world is that that is awfully hard to do.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    October 20th, 2012 at 8:11 AM

    Good point, Evan, healthy disagreements are normal, natural, and an important part of relationships. As you say, kids need to see this process, it’s part of life.
    Violence, of course, is another story.
    Thank you.
    Take care,

  • Lynn Somerstein

    October 20th, 2012 at 8:14 AM

    Hi Diego-
    It’s hard to tell how much violence is rising and how much reporting violence is rising, but I agree that violent incidents seem to be on the increase. I think it’s a public health problem that should be addressed with beneficial social programs that help families- a kind of global village.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    October 20th, 2012 at 8:15 AM

    You’re so right, Tim- people need to think hard before having children.

    Thanks for writing.
    Take care,

  • Lynn Somerstein

    October 20th, 2012 at 8:17 AM

    Hi Tyler-
    It is hard; I feel sometimes that we are surrounded by violence on TV- news programs that are perhaps too graphic, TV shows, movies, and videogames that capitalize on violence and glamorize it too.
    As you say, it’s very hard to protect your kids.
    Take care,

  • Tyler Teague

    October 20th, 2012 at 11:57 AM

    Thanks for taking the time to comment, Lynn.

    I think that it’s just as you said. . . it IS hard to protect your kids, but I think that there are many parents and care givers who think nothing of allowing any TV show or what not to play when the kids are wrong, and no matter how much it crimps your style, you just have to sometimes be willing to tune out so that your kids are not forced to tune in. Just because somethin is harmless for the adult does not mean that it is appropriate for children.

  • Joslyn

    October 20th, 2012 at 1:47 PM

    When there are ratings for violence in movies and games,is it not weird that we do not do much about shielding our kids when it comes to conflict at home?! Yet most of us do not do much about this. At a stage when their mind is still developing to expose them to sights or even sounds of a conflict between two people the child considers the most important to him/her could be very dangerous.

    I’m sure parents do not mean to cause harm but it does happen. We need to realize this and keep conflicts away from the children. Every parent ought to know and remember this!

  • Lynn Somerstein

    October 20th, 2012 at 8:29 PM

    Exactly right, Tyler. Adults have to protect children, and sometimes that means staying away from TV shows that are scary for kids, even if adults enjoy those shows.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    October 20th, 2012 at 8:31 PM

    Hi Joslyn,
    So you say that parents should rate their own behaviors like tv shows are rated for violence, and turn themselves into another more peaceful channel before things get out of hand, yes? Great idea.

  • Leilani

    June 8th, 2013 at 9:07 PM

    I personally was just like the child witness that Lynn Somerstein so eloquently wrote about here.
    The horror is not something anyone can truly describe in words.
    My father was the Narcissist that is described in the goodtherapy blog, and my mother was something that I am not qualified to evaluate. But neither parent was responsible in their behavior and subjected their children to unspeakable domestic fighting, yelling, unrest, uncertainty, confusion, and shame.
    My mother hid behind Bible verses and professed to be a good Christian, but her behavior was exactly the opposite.
    This was all very damaging to the psychological and even biological wellbeing of each child.
    We all manifested this horrible “secret” that we were subjected to differently.
    My two older siblings are mentally unwell and suffer to this day with debilitating mental and emotional issues. One has a substance abuse issue.
    However, I know I was blessed to be able to vow never to reduce myself to this when I finally grew up, but I also knew that I needed to find someone to help me work through the pain and shame and confusion. This, of course, is never easy to find.
    Witnessing Domestic violence is not something that many Therapists are equipped to help with, so finding someone qualified is really key to finding your rightful healing.
    There are many layers to the personality disorders that behave so emotionally violently with children watching or even in the house.
    It really is a health issue at the end of the day, and it needs to be thoughtfully discussed publicly to bring awareness and action.
    Being an adult who survived Domestic Violence is very challenging, as you cannot expect anyone around you to understand it and then the double whammy is you cannot use it as an excuse to ignore adult responsibilities in your own life.
    I have become stronger and more compassionate towards victims from all walks of life in many countries around the world as a result of what I experienced. I am determined to help others, and this is a cathartic and healing experience.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    June 9th, 2013 at 4:23 PM

    Dear Leilani-
    Well said and eloquently written. Thank you.
    As you say, domestic violence is a public health issue, and needs public discussion. You may know that Patrick Stewart, who grew up in a violent home, often speaks publicly about his experiences, as you can see for yourself on You Tube and on NPR–

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