Secondhand Hurt: The Impact of Domestic Violence on Children

Boy (6-7) sitting by closed door, side viewThe continuum of exposure to domestic violence ranges from chronic arguing and yelling to controlling behaviors, threats, and intimidation, to physical threats, threats of suicide or murder, to threats involving weapons, to serious injuries and fatal assaults. While domestic violence takes many forms, there is always a destructive undercurrent of power and control, with offenders commonly and compulsively grasping for in a surrogate what is lacking within themselves: control.

Any pattern of behaviors in intimate relationships marked by coercive control can be a signal or foreshadowing of abuses. And when children are involved, they are always significantly affected, remaining at risk not only of direct victimization but long-term effects stemming from exposure itself.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported that in homes where violence between partners occurs, there is a 45% to 60% chance of co-occurring child abuse, a rate 15 times higher than the average. Even when they are not physically attacked, children witness 68% to 80% of domestic assaults.

With April marking National Child Abuse Prevention Month, these numbers are a sobering reminder of the toll a violent environment takes on kids.

The circumstances of domestic violence leave caregivers, emotionally and otherwise, unavailable and unresponsive, activating a primal fear in kids beneath and between a host of other raw, complex, and unresolved emotions. The pioneering psychiatrist and researcher Daniel Siegel has written, “The mind develops as the brain responds to ongoing experience. … The pattern of firing of neurons is what gives rise to attention, emotion, and memory.” And what fires together—in a combination of overtly violent exposures and the child’s underlying neurobiological experience—wires together.

The unavoidable attention given, emotions felt, and memories imprinted onto a child’s brain in moments of stress become inextricably linked together and forever taint—or else filter—feelings, beliefs, and choices in relationships and all of life. These children are not merely innocent bystanders. They are victims.

We must better understand the psychological aftermath, which can include fear of harm or abandonment, excessive worry, sadness, or guilt, inability to experience empathy or guilt, habitual lying, low frustration tolerance, emotional distancing, poor judgment, shame about the past, and fear about the future.

The unavoidable attention given, emotions felt, and memories imprinted onto a child’s brain in moments of stress become inextricably linked together and forever taint—or else filter—feelings, beliefs, and choices in relationships and all of life. These children are not merely innocent bystanders. They are victims.

Although they may be unintended victims, living within a climate of chronic emotional volatility and near acute incidents of aggression has a way of searing a neurophysiological muddle—painful and isolating emotions existing alongside ongoing and frequently unmet needs for affection and attachment.

Parents who are themselves batterers are more irritable, less involved in child rearing, more likely to use severe and erratic physical punishment, and less able to distinguish their children’s needs from their own. Both parents, regardless of culpability, risk poor emotional attunement with their children and, consequently, a decreased capacity to recognize stress and danger, protective factors which might increase a child’s resiliency.

Compared with other kids, those who have witnessed domestic violence experience far greater incidence of insomnia, bed wetting, verbal, motor, and cognitive issues, learning difficulties, self-harm, aggressive and antisocial behaviors, depression and anxiety, as well as, most troubling, adult domestic violence, with boys often becoming offenders, victims, or both, and girls more likely to become victims (Brown and Bzostek, 2003).

A growing body of literature has revealed that children who have been exposed to domestic violence are more likely than their peers to experience a wide range of difficulties, from anger, oppositional behavior, and disobedience to fear, low self-worth, and withdrawal to poor sibling, peer, and social relationships. Studies have found evidence of much higher rates of pro-violence attitudes, rigid stereotypical gender beliefs involving male privilege, animal abuse, bullying, assault, property destruction, and substance abuse.

A study by Kilpatrick, Litt, and Williams (1997) concluded that witnessing domestic violence is an experience in and of itself sufficiently intense to precipitate posttraumatic stress in children. The ongoing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study led by the CDC has classified exposure to domestic violence as one of several adverse childhood experiences contributing to poor quality of life, premature death, as well as risk factors for many of the most common causes of death in the United States.

In addition to the exposure itself, additional factors influence impact, including the nature of the violence, age of the child, elapsed time since exposure, the child’s gender, and presence of physical or sexual abuse.

Children who witness fewer incidents of violence and experience positive interactions between caregivers may be, for instance, less detrimentally impacted than those exposed to frequent and extreme aggression. Younger children exhibit more concerning levels of psychological distress than older, more developmentally mature, children. Children are typically highly anxious and fearful immediately after witnessing an incident of domestic violence and less observably so as time passes, but of course this should not be assumed to indicate an absence of anxiety or fear. Boys exhibit more externalizing behavior problems such as aggression and acting out, while girls exhibit more internalizing behavior problems such as withdrawal and depression.

It nearly goes without saying that children who are exposed to domestic violence and are also physically or sexually abused are at a higher risk for emotional and psychological problems than those who witness such violence and are not physically or sexually abused.

Thank goodness there are protective factors that reduce the worst impacts, including a child’s literacy and overall intelligence, the extent to which the child is outgoing and socially competent, and whether the child has safe and supportive relationships with at least one influential adult (Carlson, 2000; Edleson, 2011; Hughes, et al., 2001). Those surrounding the most difficult situations have opportunity to inject resiliency through academic, emotional, and social support. We must all grapple with whether there are ways we might more effectively intervene within our families, schools, and communities to instigate help and healing.

References:

  1. Brown, B., and Bzostek, S. (2003, August). Violence in the lives of children. Crosscurrents, 1. Bethesda, MD: Child Trends. Retrieved from http://www.childtrends.org/wp-content/uploads/2003/01/2003-15ViolenceChildren.pdf
  2. Carlson, B.E. (2000). Children exposed to intimate partner violence: Research findings and implications for intervention. Trauma, Violence, and Abuse, 1 (4), 321-342.
  3. Edleson, J. (2011). Emerging responses to children exposed to domestic violence. Harrisburg, PA: VAWnet, a project of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence/Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Retrieved from http://www.vawnet.org/Assoc_Files_VAWnet/AR_ChildrensExposure.pdf
  4. Hughes, H. M., Graham-Bermann, S. A., and Gruber, G. (2001). Resilience in children exposed to domestic violence. In S. A. Graham-Bermann (Ed.). Domestic violence in the lives of children (pp. 67-90). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  5. Kilpatrick, K.L., Litt, M., and Williams, L.M. (1997). Post-traumatic stress disorder in child witness to domestic violence. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 67 (4), 639-644.
  6. Siegel, D., and Hartzell, M. (2004). Parenting from the inside out: How a deeper self-understanding can help you raise children who thrive. New York, NY: Tarcher.

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  • Carlos

    Carlos

    April 9th, 2015 at 8:16 AM

    I know that I have damaged my own kids, not because I have ever hit them but I will admit that they have witnessed me be violent against their mom you know, things happen in the heat of the moment, and no excuses here from me, but it has happened. I wish that it didn’t but I can’t take that back ever.
    So here we are, trying to make the best of the situation and they are afraid of me which is something that I never thought I would have to say about my own kids.

  • Liz

    Liz

    October 7th, 2015 at 8:52 PM

    Sorry Carlos, but “things” dont just happen in the “heat” of the moment. That’s an excuse. And your wife isn’t trying to make the “best of it.” You should be. It’s your responsibility to fix your behavior. It is not your wifes. You need to accept responsibility, and truly repent. Go and get help and genuinely change yourself.

  • Jessa

    Jessa

    April 9th, 2015 at 10:30 AM

    You have to know that the behavior that children witness when they are young is the exact behavior that they will exhibit as they get older. Even when the violence is not directed at them specifically, it hurts a whole lot to see someone in your life that you love have to endure this type of hurt.

    Parents we must stop before we speak and before we act, think of the lesson that we could be teaching our child with those words or those actions, and determine if this is really what they need to see or hear.

  • bethany

    bethany

    April 9th, 2015 at 3:15 PM

    I left my abusive ex a long time ago and I am still haunted by the knowledge that my kids saw the ugly and hurtful things that he did to me, and I will always remember the fear in their eyes that one day he would turn that rage on them.

  • Garen Amirian, LMHC

    Garen Amirian, LMHC

    April 10th, 2015 at 8:04 AM

    This is a really great piece. Not many people know the impact of witnessing DV and don’t take it seriously. There’s a lot of really great stats in here as well. Thank you for writing this :)

  • Clary

    Clary

    April 10th, 2015 at 10:39 AM

    You may not intend to hurt the child, but any child who is being raised in a home where there is a prevalence of emotional and physical abuse, it is certain that at some point in their lives they will certainly feel the repercussions.

  • Amrit

    Amrit

    April 11th, 2015 at 11:28 AM

    This article got my attention as i had such childhood full of isolation my mother being beaten abused by my father for evry silly reason. I always found my self different from other normal kids i dnt knew wat was the reason but after reading this article i can join the links.
    I want to accept that being a kid and a witness of all that anger, hatred and acts of voilence for no good reasons added fear, lack of confidence, emotional fluctations, anger, intolence for injustice, moody and short tempered.
    As a kid i was always lost in my own world and use to isolate myself from other kids so dat dey cnt discover my family secret as such disturbed families are not respected in society and other kids shud not mock me because of my parents dispute i use to stay alone in my school.
    i never made friends never spoke to make friends or socialise. No participation in any social activity or other exicting stuff.
    i was very talented and creative but my talent got no direction because my parents were busy fighting. My mom was a an intelligent lady so she always use to comfort us talk to us that is the main reason we are still in society living a normal life marieD inspite of such horrible past.
    But cant erase what my father threw at us in terms of abuse voilence. Even today i face issues talking to people i cnt start any conversations i feel so low in confidence. Depress somtimes at what i was capable of achieving and wat i missed in life. My childhood. When my parents were not around i use to talk to a tree in my house. Coz i cnt share wat i feel to a human. At least a tree wnt reveal my secret to anyone.
    even after grewing up i was not interested in marrying coz of a bad experience with my parents.
    but thanks to god for blessing me with such an adjusting life partner who knows my past understands me and helps me to get out of my fear zones.
    I always promise myself to raise my kids in the best healthy and happy environment. So they shud not miss what i did.
    can any one suggest some thing i can do to minimise my problem of low selfestem and shyness.

  • Donna

    Donna

    April 11th, 2015 at 3:32 PM

    And you realise that the damage is being done to the kids so you leave – and he drags you (kicking and screaming) into the family law system that says he has the right to see the kids and the court hands them over for them to see him repeat the pattern with his next girlfriend, or he continues to teach them the same sh*tty attitudes that he holds and the kids end up not being safe at all and mum is left to deal with the fall out of the contact visits … Why is society still rewarding these men for acting like arses?

  • aiden

    aiden

    April 12th, 2015 at 7:44 AM

    I know that kids can be so resilient and have this uncanny ability to overcome trauma, but there are still plenty of them who do not have this ability and it leaves them hurting long into their adult lives. What they see and hear as a child will play a huge role in how they interact with others when they are growing up and forming their own relationships.

  • T

    T

    April 13th, 2015 at 12:50 AM

    My son’s father raped me to get me pregnant then regularly continued to abuse me and my baby. He took control of everything around me so I would not have access to the outside world. He also tried to kill me on 3 separate occasions and also threatened to kill himself and then tried to kidnap my baby. When the police finally saw him switch his behavior, he knew he was caught and his control over me and baby were slipping away and he got another DUI. We were free for almost 5 years because he was in prison. He continued to write letters from prison letting me know he was coming home to “his family” and adding things he knew about our lives as to prove he was still in control behind bars. He knew there was a PPO and continued to use another female he was dating to help him stalk further. I went to FOC to terminate his rights, they said they don’t do that in MI anymore. That was a lie but with no extra $ due to raising my child on my own, I could not afford an attorney. We moved away to a New state and I was able to obtain gainful employment and try to finish college and my son has a wonderful support system of counselors and teachers. As soon as his father got out of prison, he filed court paperwork to demand rights to my son. The police station had no record of his attempted kidnapping and the dispatch record was gone as it had been around 5 years ago so I had no proof but a long documented record fRom the local Women’s Resource Center and years of therapy. He now has visitation. He forced his way back into my sons life causing more trauma and then abused my son sexually, mentally, and emotionally over Christmas break. He will not stop and has since continued the cycle with another single woman and child, impregnating her as well. The system failed me, which I got over, but it continues to now fail my son. My son will need counseling for the rest of his life for what his Dad has done to him and we are still in the middle of hell, as his Dad still has visitation. Dealing with all of this is a 24/7 job as sleep is hard to come by. It’s 2015 and DV has gotten worse and the criminals continue to go free. Free to take other’s lives away from their victims; as dealing with DV consumes every part of your life just trying to survive basic day to day life struggles. Hell is real, we live it, everyday.

  • Adrienne S.

    Adrienne S.

    April 13th, 2015 at 5:42 AM

    tHere is no doubt that the violence that one grows up within can be a strong influence in who we become.

    But I also have no doubt that there are so many children and adult’s as well who resolve to make their lives more than just about this, what they have grown up in and around, and who resolve to be better than that and rise above it.

    Now I will give you that it is even harder than it would be for the rest of us who grew up in a non vilest home. But it can be achieved, and I would never wish to give up just because this was specifically the hand that I was dealt.

  • jAson

    jAson

    April 14th, 2015 at 5:25 AM

    Kids are going to feel threatened in a situation like this even if they have never had a hand raised against them. This is not some sort of setting where they are going to feel safe and secure if they have to see someone that they love getting hurt by another person that they probably love too. I am telling you that even if this is a child who never experienced the sting of a hit or a slap, there is still going to be pain in that child that none of us will ever be able to see.

  • callum

    callum

    April 15th, 2015 at 10:21 AM

    There is no sense in kids so young having to stand so much. It isn’t right to put them through all of that

  • Leighton

    Leighton

    April 17th, 2015 at 9:24 AM

    I don’t understand why the numbers are so high when it comes to how many children have actually been a witness to violent and domestic abuse behaviors and situations? Why does this even have to happen to begin with, much less in front of the kids?

  • Raine

    Raine

    May 29th, 2016 at 6:00 PM

    From the age of 2, (it was already happening before I understood what it was ) I witnessed my stepdad beat my mum. Too many times I ran out into the street at night, in my nightgown to try and get someone to help. My stepdad was cruel and an alcoholic. My mum used to climb into my bed, she thought that he might not come and get her, for fear of waking me. It never stopped him. I’d stand in between her and him to protect her, although she never stood in between me and him when he turned his aggression on me. I remember peeing down my leg because I was so afraid. I remember having to bend over and hold my feet while he belted me, with my underwear by my ankles, and i was not allowed to cry or wimper, for it meant more. Today, i am an adult, he denies everything. He tells me I have cognitive dysfunction. This so called abuse never happened. Funny how I have scars from him and ptsd because of him. And he gaslights. My mum says, it wasn’t that bad. I remember a time when he had ahold of my head, and the same with my sister, and he smashed our heads together. I remember that stupid ring with a stone in it he used to wear, and how he’d back hand us in the mouth and make us bleed, and how my sister and I laughed and we’re glad the day the stone fell out and he stopped wearing that ring. But… he says it is a figment of my imagination. And he has has nothing going to do with me for the last 26 years…. I hold him accountable….

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