How are children affected by domestic violence?

All children are affected by the violence in their homes. Regardless of whether or not our children have been physically abused, watching their mother being battered is a frightening experience. Children from violent homes can exhibit a variety of behaviors. Some may “act out” and may be viewed as delinquent. Others work very hard to excel at every endeavor in attempt to keep the family peace. Living with violence creates intense stress for a child. Below is a list of some behaviors that are frequently associated with children from violent homes.

  • Physical Complaints – headaches, stomach aches, bed wetting or ulcers
  • Eating Problems – Increased or Decreased appetite
  • Trouble Sleeping – being tired all the time
  • Hair Pulling – nail biting
  • Physical Injuries
  • School Phobias – Impaired Concentration
  • Temper Tantrums
  • Nightmares
  • Fear of Men- and/or their voices
  • Fear of Being Touched – flinching when someone reaches toward them
  • Disruptive Behavior – stealing, aggression
  • Passivity – clinging, anxiety
  • Withdrawal – isolation, loneliness
  • Role Reversal- child assumes parental roles, protector/caretaker
  • Poor Self Image
  • Depression
  • Suicidal Ideation – and/or suicide attempts  

Effects of Domestic Violence on Children:

Children often imitate behaviors they witness. Generational transfer of violent
behavior and emotional dependency on others is common, thus, children learn that
violence is an acceptable behavior and an integral part of intimate
relationships. Children may become abusive adults or accept domination and
control as a normal part of intimate relations. Children raised in an abusive
environment may be abused as adults.

Targets of Violence
Children are often abused in order for the abuser to hurt,
punish, or gain revenge upon his/her spouse. The abuser may feel “ganged up” on
by family members who act or speak out against his violence. OR, the child gets
caught in the crossfire and is unintentionally injured as a result of parental
conflict. This is still considered child endangerment. The child is also abused
by the victim as she releases her stress on the child or attempts to keep the
child “in line” so not to “irritate” the abuser.

A victim living under the stress of the abuser is seldom able to
fully attend to the needs of the children. Infants may not become attached to
their primary caretaker and lack trust; young children’s growth may be stunted due to lack of stimulation; and may have sleeping and eating disorders. Infants and children who are neglected by their caregivers are prone to illness and have tremendous difficulty in areas of development and overall well being.

Emotional Disorders
Low self esteem and low confidence often result when children are unable to handle life situations. Phobias, depression, stress disorders, stuttering, insomnia, impaired concentration difficulty in school, psychosomatic illnesses, etc. are a result of the chaotic/abusive home environment and often go unattended because the parent(s) is overwhelmed by their own need.

Arguments about child rearing and/or a child’s behavior often precipitate violent episodes between parents. The child may see himself as responsible for the violence and may compensate through suicidal thoughts, overly pleasing behavior or extreme acting out behavior. The children literally blame themselves for the violence in their home. They feel “it is all my fault and if I weren’t here, none of this would be happening”.

Low Self-esteem
Children raised in violent home settings usually have poor definitions of self and values; inconsistent responses from the parents to the child’s behavior can undermine a child’s self-esteem even more. Psychological and emotional abuse also defeats self-esteem and fosters feelings of confusion, helplessness and powerlessness.

Children assume adult responsibilities that can endanger the child physically as well as delay the child’s physical and emotional development. The children go from child to adult roles without passing through adolescent stages, for example, by caring for the victim and/or younger children or caring for themselves. Children raised in violent atmospheres often care for younger siblings in the absence of the primary caretaker(s), or take over the “adult roles” such as cooking meals or cleaning the house.

Children are in danger of being involved in the assault emotionally and physically. Additional emotional danger is possible because the “referee” is expected to be impartial while the child mat be experiencing divided loyalties. If a child assumes the role of the “referee”, he/she may withdraw from both parents.

Divided Loyalties
The child often attempts to protect and defend all family members and is being used by both parents against one another. Children feel love for both parents and are confused as to why two people he loves are hurting. Feelings of shame and guilt usually result; therefore the child may isolate himself from his peers and other family members. Children experiencing these feelings are often locked into silence by the abuse.

Lack of Trust
Children with erratic parents never know whether they’ll be emotionally and/or physically neglected or whether they will receive an outpouring of affection as the abuser attempts to reconcile abusive behavior. Children don’t know who to trust or when to trust when their environment is chaotic.

Mixed Feelings
When a child lives in a chaotic environment, feelings of guilt, fear, helplessness, bottled rage, and embarrassment usually result.

Fear of Abandonment
Often during or after an attack, children are sent to stay with friends, family, or neighbors. Siblings may be separated or authorities may intervene. Parents are fearful that the Division of Family Services may come to take their children into protective custody, or that the abusive spouse may kidnap the children to use as “leverage” or as “bargaining chips” against the other spouse. All of these situations can result in separation anxiety for the children.

Children may run away to seek independence and freedom from violence, rage, and arguments at home. Children learn that running from their problems is an appropriate means of dealing with crisis instead of communicating with others to get problems solved.

Poor School Performance
Problems at home (specifically violence) may cause loss of attentiveness, lack of adequate rest, and poor nutritional habits in children. Low self-esteem and inability to complete assignments are roots of poor school performance. Children raised in homes where violence of any kind is a frequent occurrence often have tremendous difficulty academically. Some children may compensate for the violent environment by over achieving or by putting all their concentration into one activity such as academics or sports.

Substance Abuse
Children with inappropriate or inadequate coping mechanisms, along with low self-esteem will often “give in’ to peer pressure and become involved with drug/alcohol use and abuse. Some children model their parent’s behavior and cope with life stress through smoking and drug/alcohol use and abuse.

Children who experience violence in their homes may have thoughts of suicide as a means of “escaping”. Self-mutilation and obsession with death are common responses.

Effects of Domestic violence on Children – Summary by Age Group:

Infants – Characterized by poor health, poor sleeping habits, excessive crying and screaming, disruptive attachment to the caregiver(s), abnormal feeding routine and accidental injury. Infancy is a critical developmental period. Eating and/or sleeping disorders are often manifested at this early age and usually become more evident in later years of development. Stress interferes with brain development. Neural connections missed at this age are never completely replaced.

Toddler/Preschooler – Characterized by overall or specific area(s) of delayed development, signs of terror, yelling, irritable behavior, hiding, shaking, stuttering, clinging to the caretaker, somatic complaints, and regression to earlier stages of functioning. Children may become protective of their mother and other family members.

Latency Age – Characterized by Children looking to parents as role models and copying the parent’s behavior as acceptable and normal. Children may fight with others, experience school problems, and exhibit feelings of shame, guilt, and embarrassment. Child may have developmental delays, low self-esteem, and little opportunity for growth outside the home. Children raised in violent homes may have angry feelings toward family members, exhibit signs of fear, anxiety, denial, distracted, and inattentive behavior. Most often, children will blame others for the problems at home.

Adolescents/Teens – Characterized by guarded and secretive behavior about family members and embarrassment about the home situation. Teenagers don’t invite friends over and they spend much of their free time away from home. Denial and aggression are the predominant forms of problem solving. Teens often blame others instead of attempting to solve problems, they may encounter violence in their dating relationships, and they may run away as a means coping. Some teens become involved in criminal activity, some may become sexually active, or exhibit anxiety, such as nail biting or hair pulling and other self-mutilating/self destructive activities. Teens may assume the parent/caretaker role and experience confused feelings toward their parents. Some teens may over/under achieve in school and other activities and may exhibit signs of depression, eating disorders, sleeping disorders, and poor communications skills. Teens raised in violent homes often distrust those around them, usually have a complex system(s) of manipulation and may abuse those who abuse them within the family.

Source: AWAIC –