Kids Caught in the Middle

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”.  Over the past decade researchers have been exploring how children who live in abusive homes are impacted. Below is an excerpt of a training exercise borrowed from the Helping Children Who Witness Domestic Violence: A Guide for Parents by the Minnesota Center Against Violence and Abuse. In these scenarios, participants are asked to think as a child, to imagine how a child would feel about & interpret these scenarios.

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 I read the different situations, think about how you might feel, and what you might learn from each situation.

  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.
  • 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

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