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Children and Domestic Violence


Although the issues of domestic violence and child abuse are often separated, a growing body of research suggests that child abuse and domestic violence are linked within families.


  • Children in violent homes are abused at a rate of a 1500% higher than the national average.
  • 63% of all boys, ages 11 to 20 who commit murder, kill the man who was abusing their mother
  • Children from violent homes have higher risks of alcohol/drug abuse and juvenile delinquency
  • Boys who witness domestic violence are more likely to batter their female partners than boys raised in non-violent homes.
  • Domestic violence is a major factor that contributes to the problems of teenage runaways and homeless street youth.
  • The range of problems among children who witness parental violence include psychosomatic disorders, such as stuttering, anxiety, fear, sleep disruption and school problems.
  • Children 5 or older have a tendency to identify with the aggressor and lose respect for the victim.

Some effects Family Violence can have on Children

Fretful sleep, developmental slowness, lethargy, fearful reaction to a loud voice

Frequent illnesses, severe shyness, low self-esteem, hitting, biting, trouble in pre-school or daycare.

School Age Children
Frequent illnesses, hitting, stealing, lying, nightmares, eating problems, self-harm, bedwetting, poor school results, being ‘too perfect’, drug and/or alcohol abuse. The oldest child may become the family ‘caretaker’. Running away. Copying the violent behavior, especially boys.

All Children (but primarily boys)

  • Serious problems with temper tantrums
  • Continual fighting at school or between siblings
  • Lashing out at objects, inside or outside of home
  • Treating pets cruelly or abusively
  • Threatening younger sister or brother with violence. For instance, “you give over my teddy bear or I’ll kill you. I’ll slice you into little pieces with a knife.”
  • Modeling after dad---“monkey see, monkey do”
  • With girls, withdrawal, signs not so obvious
  • Occasional cringing if you raise your arm
Many women leave abusive relationships when they begin to see the detrimental effects of domestic violence on their children. Some women may endure their own abuse believing it is more important for the family to stay together and not realizing how the abuse affects their children. Yet sometimes the effects of domestic violence are difficult to see if the children are not being physically abused.

When children witness abuser or are victimized themselves, they suffer deeply. This trauma produces emotional, cognitive, and behavioral effects. Abuse by or of a caretaker effects children’s core beliefs about themselves, those in authority, relationships with others and assumptions about the world.

Emotional Effects Children experience terror at the threat of abuse. Once abuse has occurred they may have pervasive anxiety, fearing that another attack is imminent. They often feel guilty at their inability to intervene and stop the abuse from occurring to themselves and their mothers. They may feel rage at the abusive parent, as well as anger at the non-abusive parent for not being able to protect them. Children who witness the abuse of their mother often feel guilty and ashamed about themselves and their families. If the family is separated as a result of legal intervention, the children often experience grief and depression over separation from familiar surroundings.

Cognitive Effects Children learn that violence is a normal way to deal with anger. They also learn that violence works, because those who are victimized comply with the abuser’s demands to avoid further attack. They learn that adults are not to be trusted, since promises are so often broken in these families. They may equate caring with abuse. They almost always believe that the abuse is occurring because the victim deserves it or it is for their own good. If children are threatened or punished when they disclose their experiences at home, they may learn to be deceptive and indirect in their communication with others. They learn very rigid sex roles. They may believe that it is appropriate for men to be aggressive and domineering. Women may be viewed as powerless and deserving of their victimization. Having no experience of intimate relationships based on equality and non-violence, these children may believe that dominance and subordination are intrinsic to all relationships.

Behavioral Effects Children’s anxiety about their family situation may interfere with their ability to function in school. It is common for these children to have learning disabilities and many develop stress-related ailments. Some children show regressive behavior in response to violence, while others develop patterns of aggressive acting out. The belief system they develop about themselves and others is understandable given their experiences. Their reactions can also be viewed as consequences of trauma and attempts to survive. However, these beliefs and patterns of survival are incompatible with healthy human development. When these patterns persist into adulthood, victims may find themselves crippled in their ability to have trusting, productive, relationships with family or the community. Boys who witness domestic violence are more likely to batter their female partners as adults than boys raised in non-violent homes. There is some evidence that girls who witness their mother’s abuse have a higher risk of being battered as adults.

What the kids are seeing/feeling

Living in a home where domestic violence occurs affects children. Many children believe they are responsible or are partly to blame. In an interview, some children who had stayed in a shelter with their mother to escape domestic were asked to share their thoughts and feelings. Some comments shared were:

  • That violence in families is far worse than violence between strangers, because it happens between people who are supposed to love each other.
  • That they lived in a constant state of fear, with feelings experienced including terror, humiliation, anxiety, shame, anger, loneliness, and powerlessness.
  • That their experience varied even within families:
  • Some siblings were abused, others were not.
  • Some children tried to intervene, others hid.
  • Some children covered up the violence, others said nothing.

How to Help

If a child tells you he or she is living in a violent situation, you can:

  • Let the child know you believe them and understand. Reassure the child that it isn’t their fault.
  • Let the child talk about anything that may be worrying them. Children are not usually encouraged to talk about violence at home. No one is supposed to talk about it outside of the family.
  • Help the child learn other ways of dealing with anger/frustration.
  • Help the child work out a safety plan for an emergency.
  • Help the child to feel good about him/herself.
  • Reassure the child that you will help as much as you can, or you will talk with someone who can and they are not alone.

Mothers Taking Actions,Talking with your Children

It is important for children to understand that your partner’s physical violence or verbal abusiveness and any other destructive behavior is wrong. This can help reduce any damage to their self-worth, and their ideas about how family members can respect and relate to each other.

  • Take a strong position that your partner’s violent behavior is wrong and damaging to you and to them.
  • Make sure the children know that they are not responsible or to blame for his violent behavior and neither are you.
  • Explain your actions in direct relation to his wrong behavior. You would not be taking the actions (leaving, divorce, etc.) if his behavior had been acceptable.
  • Condemn the violent partner’s behavior, not him personally. The children probably love and feel loyal to him.
  • Allow the children to express whatever feelings they may have for him.
  • Reassure the children that you love them.
  • Encourage your children to express all their feelings and fears.
  • Be open with them about the stresses of their past and current life. Don’t ignore or avoid talking about how it affects them.
  • Be positive about the future whenever possible.

An overview of children who witness domestic violence

These kids often appear:

  • Sad, fearful, depressed and/or anxious
  • Aggressively defiant or passively compliant
  • To have limited tolerance for frustration and stress
  • To become isolated and withdrawn
  • To be at risk for drug and/or alcohol abuse, sexual acting out, running away
  • To have poor impulse control
  • To feel powerless
  • To have low self-esteem
  • To take on parental roles

Domestic violence may be kept from relatives, neighbors, clergy and others, but the children of violent partners know what is happening. In one home there may not be any physical violence against a child whose adult caretakers have an abusive relationship, while in anther home there may be physical abuse of the child as well. Either way, a child who lives in a home where domestic violence occurs is a victim all the same.

A home that is characterized by physical, emotional, sexual or property abuse is a frightening, debilitating and unhealthy place. The children in such a home are often unable to be children. They worry about protecting their parents. They are concerned that they not become an additional source of stress or problem, and fear for their own safety and security. They have the burden of carrying around a tremendous family secret.

Children from violent homes often suffer from depression. Some become isolated. Many do not want to bring friends home because of the shame and unpredictability of violence. They may spend much time away from the home and get into trouble for truancy, petty crimes or disturbances. Children from violent homes often experience nightmares, sleep disturbances and nighttime bedwetting. A child’s ability to handle his or her schoolwork the next day is often adversely affected. Domestic violence incidents often occur during late evening hours, just at the time a child is getting ready for bed, and often wakes them up with shouts and noise. Needing to feel secure and safe themselves and to know that their parents will return safely, they can refuse to be left and/or they will be disruptive in school.

Children from violent homes often feel responsible for everything bad that happens to them or to their parents. If they were neater, quieter, helped more or were smarter in school, maybe the violence would stop.

In all cases, a child is being educated in a regimen of violence. There is some correlation between being raised in a home where domestic violence occurred and becoming an abusing or abused spouse. One study reported 33.33% of the victims and 49.1% of their abusers had witnessed violence between their parents.

Risk to children of domestic violence

There is a strong correlation between woman abuse and child maltreatment. Several studies document the high correlation between the abuse of women by their partners and child abuse. Several factors contribute to this tendency. Battered women are physically and emotionally worn down by the abuse. This may interfere with her ability to adequately meet her children’s needs, which could lead to some form of neglect. Secondly, men who batter their wives are likely to assault their children. Older children are frequently assaulted when they intervene to defend or protect their mothers. The abuse of women is also the context for sexual abuse of female children. Where the father assaults the mother, their daughters risk of sexual abuse by the father is much greater than girls in non-abusive families.

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is the infliction of physical injury by slapping, punching, beating, kicking, biting, and burning. It may include the use of a weapon or any other object used to inflict harm. Exposing the child to danger through activities such as drunk and reckless driving are also forms of abuse.

Sexual Abuse

Unwanted touching or penetration in any body opening with any object is sexual abuse. It includes unwanted fondling, relating to the child as a potential sexual partner, exposure of adult sexual parts to the child, and forcing the child to be physically affectionate to another adult. It can also involve activities initiated as games which involve confusion about body touching or sexual contact between an adult and child.

Psychological Abuse

Any behavior that intimidates the child and thus impedes child development is psychological abuse. It can include threats, name calling, and belittling, shaming the child in front of others, unrealistic expectations of the child’s performance, emotional withholding, not respecting the child’s privacy. Bizarre and severe forms of punishment such as locking the child in a dark closet are also psychologically abusive.


The failure to provide for the child’s basic needs for food, clothing, shelter, supervision, education and medical care.

Separation Risks

When the battered woman seeks to escape an abusive relationship, her children are faced with a whole other different set of risks.

Loss of Custody

When a battered woman separates from her partner, she fears and often risks losing her children, if she lacks the funds to support them on her own. Many abusive fathers seek and are awarded custody of their children. The law in Alabama states the victim shall be awarded custody in domestic violence cases.

Child Abduction

Battering men use custodial access to the children as a tool to terrorize battered women or to retaliate for separation. Some of our country’s missing children are actually being hidden by their mothers to protect them from violent fathers. Conversely, abusers sometimes kidnap their children to punish their partners for leaving or to get them to come back.

Seration Violence

It is natural to assume that if a woman leaves an abusive relationship, she will be safe as will her children. However, leave taking alone does not protect battered women and their children. Battering men often escalate violence to recapture battered women and children who have sought safety in separation.

Implications for Teachers

Teachers are in an ideal position to assist children affected by abuse in the home by picking up signs and responding sympathetically to such children.

At school, children may be affected in the following ways:

  • They may be too tired to concentrate on their lessons.
  • They may be depressed and withdrawn, friendships may suffer.
  • They may display behavior problems in relation to anger and aggression.
  • They may suffer frequent interruption to their schooling when they are forced to leave a violent home.

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