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Domestic violence: How abuse within the family affects children
Posted in Domestic Abuse - 0 Comments

domestic violence affects children

The kindergartner who witnessed her father regularly beat her mother grew up to be a victim of domestic violence in her own marriage. The 13-year-old boy who saw his dad repeatedly verbally abuse his mother exhibits acting out and aggressive behavior at school. He may grow up to treat his future spouse the same way, thinking that this behavior is appropriate within a loving marriage. For a child who witnesses domestic violence in their home, the list of repercussions is long.

When comparing the temperaments and behaviors of children who have been exposed to domestic violence versus those who have not, a large body of research has provided sobering findings. The difficulties present in the children who had witnessed domestic violence fall into three categories:

  • Behavioral, emotional and social problems. These include aggressive and antisocial behavior, anger, depression, anxiety, withdrawal, oppositional behavior, poor social and familial relationships and low self esteem
  • Cognitive and attitudinal problems. These include difficulties in school, lower scores on standardized tests in cognitive, verbal and motor skills, absence of conflict resolution skills, slower cognitive development, limited problem solving skills and belief in rigid gender stereotypes
  • Long-range problems. These include a probability that they will engage in domestic violence as adults (males), probability they will be the victim of domestic violence (females), trauma symptoms and a higher incidence of adult depression

Children exposed to domestic violence have varying responses to it. Not all children will experience such negative effects, depending on various factors that will dictate the outcome. While some grow up to demonstrate significant maladaptive adjustment, others exhibit resiliency. If certain protective factors are present, such as intelligence, high self-esteem, an outgoing temperament, strong sibling and peer relationships and a supportive relationship with a non-abusive parent, the consequences can be somewhat mitigated.

Other factors that influence the impact of domestic violence on children:

  • Age of the child. There are age-related differences to the response to domestic violence. Younger children exhibit higher levels of emotional distress than older children, most likely because the older child has more fully developed cognitive abilities
  • Nature of the violence. It has been shown that children who witness frequent and severe forms of violence may undergo more distress than children who witness fewer incidences of physical violence
  • Generally, boys will exhibit more externalized behavior responses to domestic violence, as in aggression and acting out, while girls exhibit more internalized behaviors, as in withdrawal and depression
  • Elapsed time since exposure. Fewer observable effects are seen in children as time passes after the violent event, where immediately following the event there are heightened levels of anxiety and fear

Children who have witnessed domestic violence may demonstrate immediate effects from the violent situation, on-going effects throughout childhood and adolescence, as well as long-term effects in adult years. These effects can be direct, after witnessing abuse, with resulting anxiety, sleep disturbances, difficulty concentrating, worry and aggression. Indirect effects are the result of parenting that is compromised due to the abuse. Almost half of the children who witness a domestic violence incident will attempt to intervene by yelling at the abuser to stop, trying to get away, or calling for help.

The devastating and long-lasting impact of a child witnessing domestic violence is significant. Many studies have shown that child witnesses of violence experience more health complaints, more eating, sleeping, pain problems, as well as more incidences of self-harm than a child who has not. Witnessing domestic violence in the preschool years was related to behavior problems during the teen years. If the violence was witnessed in the adolescent’s teen years, the resulting problems were also exhibited during the teen years. Frequent exposure to domestic violence was a significant risk factor for depression in young adulthood. It is also being found that early life stressors, such as domestic violence, can result in enduring brain dysfunction that can affect health and quality of life throughout life.

A woman with children who finds herself in a relationship or marriage where domestic violence is occurring must first seek safety for herself and her children. Once those provisions and accommodations have been found and the proper legal steps have been taken, treatment for trauma, mood disorders or substance abuse is available.

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