Impact On Children

We've all heard people say things like "Kids are resilient, they'll bounce back", "S/he won't remember this anyway", "The kids will be ok". To get an idea of how a child might feel, we borrow a portion of the following exercise from Helping Children Who Witness Domestic Violence: A Guide for Parents by the Minnesota Center Against Violence and Abuse.

Preface: So far, you have grown up with both parents. You love both your parents. Sometimes they get along very well. Your father is sometimes very nice to you. He is handsome and funny. He makes you laugh. You want them to be together. The violence in your home has been going on since you were born.

As you read through the 3 scenarios presented below, please imagine how a child would feel about & interpret them.

  1. Lots of times, when you are having a family dinner at home, your father tells your mother that he can't stand the way she chews. She is a slob. She is so gross. He can't bear to look at her. He tells her to wipe the grease off her chin. She takes a napkin and wipes her face. She looks down and doesn't say anything.
    Pause – how do you feel – about your mother, your father & yourself?
  2. Your mother is doing a load of laundry and cooking dinner. You are playing on the floor in the living room. Your sister is napping. Your father comes home and trips on one of your toys. Your father screams at your mother and tells her she's a slob and why doesn't she ever clean the house. Your mother tells him to stop. He tells her to quit her bitching. Your sister wakes up and starts screaming. Your mother says that he shouldn't talk like that in front of you. Your father slams her against the wall and hits her. On his way out the door he says he wants the house clean when he gets home. You are crying. Your mother is crying. She hugs you and tells you not to worry. Things will be OK.
    Pause – how do you feel – about your mother, your father & yourself?
  3. Your father comes home the next night. He brings you a beautiful new kite. He says he's sorry he upset you, but if your mother were a better housekeeper these things wouldn't happen. He hugs you and the two of you go outside to fly your kite.
    Pause – how do you feel – about your mother, your father & yourself?

Over the past decade researchers have been exploring how children who live in abusive homes are impacted. Children get their sense of self and define themselves & how they interact with others largely from their parents and their home environment. Whether they communicate awareness or memory of abuse, they internalize it. When their parent is humiliated, the child is humiliated, when a parent is hurt, they are hurt. And when they are pulled between two parents they may be confused and feel that they are betraying one or the other. The impact of children in abusive homes can present in a wide variety of different ways or not at all.

Some risks to Children in Abusive Homes include: (From

  • Children in homes where domestic violence occurs may "indirectly" receive injuries. They may be hurt when household items are thrown or weapons are used. Infants may be injured if being held by the mother when the batterer strikes out.
  • Older children may be hurt while trying to protect their mother.
  • Children in homes where domestic violence occurs may experience cognitive or language problems, developmental delay, stress-related physical ailments (such as headaches, ulcers, and rashes), and hearing and speech problems.
  • Many children in homes where domestic violence occurs have difficulties in school, including problems with concentration, poor academic performance, difficulty with peer interactions, and more absences from school.
  • Boys who witness domestic violence are more likely to batter their female partners as adults than boys raised in nonviolent homes. There is no evidence, however, that girls who witness their mothers' abuse have a higher risk of being battered as adults.
  • Taking responsibility for the abuse.
  • Constant anxiety (that another beating will occur) and stress-related disorders that may mimic ADHD.
  • Guilt for not being able to stop the abuse or for loving the abuser.
  • Fear of abandonment.
  • Social isolation and difficulty interacting with peers and adults.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Younger children do not understand the meaning of the abuse they observe and tend to believe that they "must have done something wrong." Self-blame can precipitate feelings of guilt, worry, and anxiety.
  • Children may become withdrawn, non-verbal, and exhibit regressed behaviors such as clinging and whining. Eating and sleeping difficulty, concentration problems, generalized anxiety, and physical complaints (such as headaches) are all common.
  • Unlike younger children, the pre-adolescent child typically has greater ability to externalize negative emotions. In addition to symptoms commonly seen with childhood anxiety (such as sleep problems, eating disturbance, nightmares), victims in this age group may show a loss of interest in social activities, low self-concept, withdrawal or avoidance of peer relations, rebelliousness and oppositional-defiant behavior in the school setting. It is also common to observe temper tantrums, irritability, frequent fighting at school or between siblings, lashing out at objects, treating pets cruelly or abusively, threatening of peers or siblings with violence, and attempts to gain attention through hitting, kicking, or choking peers and/or family members. Girls are more likely to exhibit withdrawal and run the risk of being "missed" as a child in need of support.
  • Adolescents are at risk of academic failure, school drop-out, delinquency, substance abuse, and difficulties in their own relationships.

For more information on keeping children in abusive homes safer or assisting them, please call us at 937-498-7261.

Click Here to Learn about Mental Health Services for Children Who Witness Domestic Violence


“Children are resilient – they bounce back – they don’t know what’s going on – they can’t understand – they’re asleep…” These are but a few of the thousand different lies adults tell themselves so that they don’t have to think about what happens to the kids when something bad is happening to the adults in their lives. The truth is that emerging research into childhood traumas, such as witnessing domestic violence, demonstrate that children are very much involved in and impressed by everything in their environment, though they may not immediately show impact or be able to put words to what they’ve seen, experience and know.

Let’s face it. When you smile, your child learns to smile. When you speak, your child learns to speak. When you choose abuse as a means to get what you want from loved ones, what is your child learning? They can’t tell you when or how they learned to talk or walk or smile – they also won’t be able to tell you when they learned to hit, name call, belittle, shame – but they will assuredly learn.

In fact children’s very health & developmental well being can be impacted. Children develop the core of how they think, feel and act within the first 33 months. An abuser’s behavior can actually disrupt typical development during these years. Cortisol, a chemical secreted by the brain during stressful, “fight or flight” situations, can, when secreted in excess, actually destroy synapses in some parts of the brain. Cortisol can be transferred to a fetus via amniotic fluid. Intense stress during the formative years of a child’s brain may actually alter the brain’s chemistry. (From Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith S. Wiley, Ghosts from the Nursery (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997)

Children who grow up around violence are at greater risk for depression, poor school performance, aggressive behavior, withdrawal, and complaints like stomachaches and headaches.  (Lawson DM (2003). Incidence, explanations, and treatment of partner violence. Journal of Counseling and Development, 81(1): 19–32. ) Teens are at increased risk for depression, drug and alcohol use, and disruptive behavior; and affected teen girls attempt suicide more often.  (Campbell JC (2002). Health consequences of intimate partner violence. Lancet, 359(9314): 1331–1337.) Studies have repeatedly demonstrated a significant overlap between domestic violence and child abuse - homes where there is one are likely to have the other. The majority of studies have found that from 30 to 60 percent of families where child maltreatment or woman battering is identified, it is likely that both forms of abuse exist.  (Patricia Tjaden and Nancy Thoennes. “Extent, Nature and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence: Findings From the National Violence Against Women Survey.” NCJ 181867, July 2000.)

According to the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence, children exposed directly or indirectly to domestic violence may exhibit substantial responses, both immediate and long-term. The following signs may indicate abuse, though they could also result from a variety of stressful and disturbing situations:

Behavioral, Social, and Emotional Problems:

  • Higher levels of aggression, anger and hostility
  • “Acting out”
  • Oppositional behavior and disobedience
  • Fear and anxiety
  • Withdrawal
  • Depression
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Changes in eating patterns
  • Poor peer, sibling and social relationships
  • Low self-esteem

Cognitive and Attitudinal Problems:

  • Lower cognitive functioning
  • Poor school performance
  • Lack of conflict resolution skills
  • Limited problem solving skills
  • Pro-violence attitudes
  • Belief in rigid gender stereotypes and male privilege

Long-term problems

  • Higher levels of adult depression and trauma symptoms
  • Increased tolerance for and/or use of violence in adult relationships

Factors That Can Influence How a Child Witness Reacts and Responds to Domestic Abuse Include:

  • Nature of the violence: Children who witness frequent and severe violence or do not see their caregivers resolving conflict may experience more distress than children who witness fewer incidences of physical violence and observe positive interactions between their caregivers.
  • Coping strategies and skills: Children with poor coping skills are more likely to experience problems than children with strong coping skills and supportive social networks.
  • Age of the child: Younger children appear to exhibit higher levels of emotional and psychological distress than older children. Age-related differences might result from older children's more developed cognitive abilities to understand the violence and select various coping strategies to alleviate upsetting symptoms.
  • Elapsed time since exposure: Children often have heightened levels of anxiety and fear immediately after a violent event. Fewer observable effects are seen in children as more time passes after the violent event.
  • Gender: In general, boys exhibit more "externalized behaviors" (e.g., aggression or acting out) while girls exhibit more "internalized" behaviors" (e.g., withdrawal or depression).
  • Presence of child physical or sexual abuse: Children who witness domestic violence and are physically abused are at risk for increased levels of emotional and psychological maladjustment than children who only witness violence and are not abused.

“Each child has a unique set of experiences, and each is impacted in a unique way,” according to Dr. Jeffrey Edleson, Director of the Minnesota Center Against Violence and Abuse. “Lots of kids come out fairly intact and healthy. Others may experience the same violence exposure, but end up devastated. One of the main tasks of early childhood is to develop secure attachments. Domestic violence disrupts that process. It also disrupts self-regulation and deep relationships. For some children, the danger is being involved and being injured and seeing your mother injured. For some children, the domestic violence exposure may not be the only risk in the child’s life.”

Many of us feel confused and helpless when we think about dealing with a child who has witnessed abuse. But there are some very simple things you can tell children that can help them feel more comfortable.

  • The violence is not your fault.
  • You are not alone—other families have this problem too.
  • What you think and how you feel is very important.
  • Feeling angry and scared is normal. It’s okay to talk about it.
  • Never get in the middle of a fight. Remember your safety plan and use it to get away and call for help.
  • You are a wonderful child and you are very loved.

(Kellie Rogers, Advocate, YWCA Children’s Domestic Violence Program.)

Help Them Plan For Their Safety

If you know or suspect that a child is experiencing domestic violence in her or his home, you can help that them create their own safety plan if s/he voluntarily expresses interest in learning about how to manage fear or anger and how to protect herself/himself. 

Here are some things you can say:

  • If you can’t get outside safely, then go to your room or another safe place in the house.
  • Stay out of the fight. You can be hurt by things that get thrown or by blows intended for someone else.
  • Go to a friend’s or neighbor’s house. 
  • Figure out how many different ways you can get out of your house or apartment. 
  • Call for help (911).
  • Find an adult you can trust and tell them what is happening with your family. 

(Lundy Bancroft, in a speech given at Children’s Justice Conference, Bellevue, WA, 2004.)

Experts who work with families affected by violence tell us again and again that the best way to support children is by supporting their mothers. This often means changing our way of thinking about victims of domestic violence. We need to remember that:

  • No one chooses or deserves to be in an abusive relationship.
  • Victims are not at fault. The batterer is always the one responsible for the abuse. 
  • Most battered women care about their children’s safety and want to protect them.
  • Leaving an abusive relationship does not ensure that a victim and her children will be safe.
  • Women and children have the right to be safe from harm. 

(Adapted from Susan Schechter, “Expanding Solutions for Domestic Violence and Poverty: What Battered Women with Abused Children Need from Their Advocates,”)



Additional Resources:

Read more information about Domestic Violence and Children
Read an article from NCCEV about Children & Violence

  1. “Family Violence Prevention Fund Domestic Violence Fact Sheet,”
  2. “Health Concerns Across a Women’s Lifespan: 1998 Survey of Women’s Health,” The Commonwealth Fund, 1999. New York, NY.
  3. “2006 Fatality Review Report: If I Had One More Day...,”
  4. Ibid.
  5. “Intimate Partner Violence in the United States,”
  6. Patricia Tjaden and Nancy Thoennes. “Extent, Nature and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence: Findings From the National Violence Against Women Survey.” NCJ 181867, July 2000.
  7. “2006 Fatality Review Report: If I Had One More Day...,”
  8. Ibid.
  9. Jeffrey L. Edleson, “The Overlap Between Child Maltreatment and Woman Abuse,” Violence Against Women 5(1999):2.
  10. Adapted from Minnesota Center Against Violence & Abuse, “How Children Are Involved in Adult Domestic Violence: Results From A Four City Telephone Survey,”
  11. Adapted from Susan Schechter, “Expanding Solutions for Domestic Violence and Poverty: What Battered Women with Abused Children Need from Their Advocates,”
  12. Adapted from Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith S. Wiley, Ghosts from the Nursery (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997).
  13. Lundy Bancroft, Speaking at the Children’s Justice Conference,Bellevue, WA, 2004.
  14. Kellie Rogers, Advocate, YWCA Children’s Domestic Violence Program.
  15. Adapted from Next Door,, 2002.
  16. Adapted from the South King County Community Network,
  17. Adapted from the South King County Community Network,
  18. Adapted from U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, “Safe From the Start: Taking Action on Children Exposed to Violence,”
  19. Jeffrey L. Edleson, “Should Childhood Exposure to Adult Domestic Violence Be Defined as Child Maltreatment Under the Law?”,
  20. “2006 Fatality Review Report: If I Had One More Day...,”
  21. Lundy Bancroft, When Dad Hurts Mom: Helping Your Children Heal from the Wounds of Witnessing Abuse (Boston: Putnam’s Sons, 2004), 262.
  22. Jeffrey L. Edleson, 2007.

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