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Effects of Domestic Violence on Children

It is significant that seven out of ten people who enter domestic violence shelters are children.  Experts report that children who witness abuse and violence against their mothers do not escape without pain.  Domestic violence can be a sometimes life-threatening phenomenon that has devastating consequences on children. 

Some effects can be far reaching:  Children who grow up in abusive homes may become abusers or victims in their own relationships.  They learn from an important male role model that violence toward a loved one is acceptable. 

Children who live in violent homes are affected even if they are not the appointed targets of abuse.  Parents often think that their children are not aware of what is going on at home but from very early ages, they generally know or sense what is happening.  Children who are in crisis as a result of abuse or violence in their homes may or may not be able to openly talk about their anxieties, fears and concerns and often act out these feelings and give non-verbal clues.  Problem behaviors are not unusual for children in crisis, especially those from violent homes.  It is important to recognize these types of behaviors for what they are - a way of communicating how they are feeling.  Their behaviors are good indicators of how they are coping. 

Children who live in violent or abusive homes may experience:

Chaos - Children may never know what to expect at home.  The abuser's mood can change instantly from loving to enraged.

Fear and Tension - Daily anger and violence can create emotional and physical trauma for children.  They may grow up being afraid of everything -- and trusting no one.

Danger - Children may be the intended victim of an abuser or they can get caught in the middle and be hurt - or killed - by accident.

Confusion - Children in violent households often receive mixed messages.  For example,
at school they learn that hitting is wrong but at home they learn that abuse and hitting is used to "solve" problems.

Isolation - The abuser often shuts off the family from the outside world.  The resulting isolation may cause children to withdraw from their peers and other adults.

Hopelessness - Children often blame themselves for the violence but feel powerless to prevent or escape from it.

Behaviors children in crisis may exhibit:
  • loss of appetite, break in eating patterns
  • sleep disturbances, nightmares, restlessness
  • irregularity, diarrhea, stomach ache or other physical symptoms
  • school problems, refusal to go, truancy, drop in performance
  • withdrawal
  • stranger anxiety
  • clinging to mom and siblings
  • shyness
  • stubbornness
  • fear of dark
  • acting out at bedtime
  • talking back
  • verbally abusive
  • increased violent behavior, fighting, kicking, hitting
  • regression, bed wetting, wanting bottle or pacifier, baby talk, wetting pants, soiling pants, thumb sucking
  • temper tantrums
  • inappropriate response to discipline
  • whining
  • over sensitive, crying, intolerant to teasing
  • role reversal, taking on a parenting role
  • testing, pushing limits as far as possible
  • lying
  • stealing
Statistics on the Impact of Domestic Violence on Children

Nationally, 75% of battered women say that their children are also battered.
Straus, M.A.R.J. Gelles and S.K. Steinmetz (1980).  Behind Closed Doors:  Violence in the American Family.  Garden City, NY:  Anchor Books.

Children older than 5 or 6 have a tendency to identify with the aggressor and lose respect for the victim.
Crites, L. and Coker, D. (1988) "What Therapsts See That Judges May Miss:  A Unique Guide to Custody Decisions When Spouse Abuse is Charged," The Judges Journal, Spring.

Some adolescent boys assault their mothers and siblings.  Older children, especially girls, may take on the burden of trying to protect their younger siblings.
Jaffe, P., Wolfe, D., and Wilson, S.  Children of Battered Women:  Issues in Child Development and Intervention Planning.  Newbury Park, CA:  Safe, 1990.

75% of boys who witness parental abuse have demonstrable behavioral problems.
Fagan J. and Wexler, S. (1987).  "Family Origins of Violent Delinquents."  Criminology, XXV, pp. 643-669.

Serious child abuse almost always postdates the infliction of serious abuse of mothers by fathers or male partners.
Stark, E. and Flitchcraft, A.  "Women and Children at Risk:  A Feminist Perspective on Child Abuse."  International Journal of Health Services, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1988.

More than 40 children are abducted by a parent each hour in this country.  More than 54% of these abductions occur in the context of family violence.
Greif, G. and Hegar, R.  When Parents Kidnap.  New York, NY:  The Free Press, 1992.

Sixty-three percent of all males between the ages of 11 and 20 who are serving time for homicide in America killed their mothers batterer.
Edwards, Leonard P. "Reducing Family Violence:  The Role of the Family Violence Council."  Juvenile and Family Court Journal, Vol. 1, 1992.

Children from abusive homes can exhibit low self-esteem, sadness, depression, stress indicators, poor impulse control, and feelings of powerlessness.  They are at high risk for alcohol and drug use, sexual acting out, running away, isolation, loneliness, fear and suicide.
Crites, L. and Coker, D. (1988) "What Therapsts See That Judges May Miss:  A Unique Guide to Custody Decisions When Spouse Abuse is Charged," The Judges Journal.

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