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Effects of Domestic Violence

All children and youth who live with domestic violence are affected by the experience. The nature and extent of the effects vary greatly. Some children are severely traumatized while others are able to cope well, and go on to live healthy, productive lives.

All children and youth who live with domestic violence are affected by the experience. The nature and extent of the effects vary greatly. Some children are severely traumatized while others are able to cope well, and go on to live healthy, productive lives. Children are not just eye witnesses to domestic violence. They are actively involved in trying to understand the abuse, predict when it will happen, protect themselves, their parent or their siblings and worry about the consequences. Fear and secrecy often dominate family relationships affected by domestic violence, and survival becomes the primary goal of non-abusing family members. The focus on making it through each day may leave little room for fun and relaxation, meeting basic needs, or planning for the future.

Children experience domestic violence in many different ways:

  • Seeing a parent or caregiver threatened, demeaned or battered

  • Being in the middle of an assault by accident, because the abuser intends it, or because the child tries to intervene

  • Overhearing conflict, fighting or violence

  • Seeing the aftermath, such as the survivor parent or caregivers’s injuries and trauma reactions

  • Living in a household dominated by tension and fear

  • Being raised by parents whose ability to provide care is compromised by domestic violence

  • Being used and manipulated by the abusive parent to hurt the survivor parent

  • Suffering the consequences of economic abuse

Effects of experiencing domestic violence can include:

  • Believing the abuse and violence is their fault

  • Turning against or having ambivalent feelings about their parent/s

  • Feeling that they are alone, or that there is no one who understands them

  • Being afraid to talk about the abuse or express their feelings

  • Developing negative core beliefs about themselves and/or others

  • Having a lot of headaches or stomach aches (“Effects of DV on Children,” 2021)

  • Experiencing developmental delays or regressions

  • Developing unhealthy coping and survival reactions, such as mental health problems or behavior problems

  • Having trouble making or keeping friends or getting into trouble in school(“Effects of DV on Children,” 2021)

  • Believing that the world is a dangerous and unpredictable place

  • Being isolated from people who might find out about the abuse or offer help

Children and youth can also learn lessons such as:

  • Violence and coercion are normal and justifiable

  • Abusive tactics are effective ways to get what you want 

  • There are two ways to solve problems: aggression and passivity

  • Survivors are responsible for what happens to them

  • People who hurt others don’t face consequences for their actions

  • It’s OK to blame problems on someone else

  • People who are supposed to take care of you cannot always be trusted

  • Women are not worthy of respect

Teenagers (13–18 years)

Older children may exhibit the most behavioral changes as a result of exposure to violence. Depending on their circumstances, teenagers may:

  • Talk about the event all the time or deny that it happened

  • Refuse to follow rules or talk back with greater frequency

  • Complain of being tired all the time

  • Engage in risky behaviors

  • Sleep more or less than usual

  • Increase aggressive behaviors

  • Want to be alone and/or not even want to spend time with friends

  • Experience frequent nightmares

  • Start fights or bully others (“Effects of DV on Children,” 2021)

  • Use drugs or alcohol, run away from home, and/or get into trouble with the law

  • Become a victim of domestic violence or a person who uses violence in future intimate partner relationships

Witnessing domestic violence can have negative effects on children’s development. Exposure to domestic violence, like other toxic stressors, can interfere with a child’s healthy brain development. This can lead to altered stress response, difficulty paying attention, hyper-startle response, and other problems. The potential symptoms of childhood exposure to domestic violence can be characterized as externalized or internalized symptoms. Externalized symptoms are more visible and often manifest as behavioral problems. Internalized symptoms, such as mental health problems, are more difficult to recognize.

Externalized reactions of children experiencing domestic violence include:

  • Aggression

  • Lower social competence, including less empathy with others

  • Lower verbal, cognitive and motor abilities

  • Restlessness, impulsivity and difficulty concentrating

  • Behavioral and academic difficulties in school

  • Immaturity, delays in development and regression to earlier developmental stages

Internalized reactions of children’ experiencing domestic violence include:

  • Depression, anxiety and hypervigilance

  • Fearful, withdrawn and inhibited behavior

  • Lower self esteem

  • Shame and feeling responsible for the abuse

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Long-term effects of experiencing domestic violence can include a higher risk for alcohol and drug abuse, running away, and suicide. Early intervention services, positive early experiences, and support from a responsive adult can help promote resiliency and counterbalance the consequences of adversity. (“Applying the Science of Child Development in Child Welfare Systems”)