Effects of domestic violence on children

Many children exposed to violence in the home are also victims of physical abuse.1 Children who witness domestic violence or are victims of abuse themselves are at serious risk for long-term physical and mental health problems.2 Children who witness violence between parents may also be at greater risk of being violent in their future relationships. If you are a parent who is experiencing abuse, it can be difficult to know how to protect your child.

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What are the short-term effects of domestic violence or abuse on children?

Children in homes where one parent is abused may feel fearful and anxious. They may always be on guard, wondering when the next violent event will happen.3 This can cause them to react in different ways, depending on their age:

  • Children in preschool. Young children who witness intimate partner violence may start doing things they used to do when they were younger, such as bed-wetting, thumb-sucking, increased crying, and whining. They may also develop difficulty falling or staying asleep; show signs of terror, such as stuttering or hiding; and show signs of severe separation anxiety.
  • School-aged children. Children in this age range may feel guilty about the abuse and blame themselves for it. Domestic violence and abuse hurts children’s self-esteem. They may not participate in school activities or get good grades, have fewer friends than others, and get into trouble more often. They also may have a lot of headaches and stomachaches.
  • Teens. Teens who witness abuse may act out in negative ways, such as fighting with family members or skipping school. They may also engage in risky behaviors, such as having unprotected sex and using alcohol or drugs. They may have low self-esteem and have trouble making friends. They may start fights or bully others and are more likely to get in trouble with the law. This type of behavior is more common in teen boys who are abused in childhood than in teen girls. Girls are more likely than boys to be withdrawn and to experience depression.4

What are the long-term effects of domestic violence or abuse on children?

More than 15 million children in the United States live in homes in which domestic violence has happened at least once.5 These children are at greater risk for repeating the cycle as adults by entering into abusive relationships or becoming abusers themselves. For example, a boy who sees his mother being abused is 10 times more likely to abuse his female partner as an adult. A girl who grows up in a home where her father abuses her mother is more than six times as likely to be sexually abused as a girl who grows up in a non-abusive home.6

Children who witness or are victims of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse are at higher risk for health problems as adults. These can include mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety. They may also include diabetes, obesity, heart disease, poor self-esteem, and other problems.7

Can children recover from witnessing or experiencing domestic violence or abuse?

Each child responds differently to abuse and trauma. Some children are more resilient, and some are more sensitive. How successful a child is at recovering from abuse or trauma depends on several things, including having:8

  • A good support system or good relationships with trusted adults
  • High self-esteem
  • Healthy friendships

Although children will probably never forget what they saw or experienced during the abuse, they can learn healthy ways to deal with their emotions and memories as they mature. The sooner a child gets help, the better his or her chances for becoming a mentally and physically healthy adult.

How can I help my children recover after witnessing or experiencing domestic violence?

You can help your children by:

  • Helping them feel safe. Children who witness or experience domestic violence need to feel safe.9 Consider whether leaving the abusive relationship might help your child feel safer. Talk to your child about the importance of healthy relationships.
  • Talking to them about their fears. Let them know that it’s not their fault or your fault. Learn more about how to listen and talk to your child about domestic violence (PDF, 229 KB).
  • Talking to them about healthy relationships. Help them learn from the abusive experience by talking about what healthy relationships are and are not. This will help them know what is healthy when they start romantic relationships of their own.
  • Talking to them about boundaries. Let your child know that no one has the right to touch them or make them feel uncomfortable, including family members, teachers, coaches, or other authority figures. Also, explain to your child that he or she doesn’t have the right to touch another person’s body, and if someone tells them to stop, they should do so right away.
  • Helping them find a reliable support system. In addition to a parent, this can be a school counselor, a therapist, or another trusted adult who can provide ongoing support. Know that school counselors are required to report domestic violence or abuse if they suspect it.
  • Getting them professional help. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy or counseling that may work best for children who have experienced violence or abuse.10 CBT is especially helpful for children who have anxiety or other mental health problems as a result of the trauma.11 During CBT, a therapist will work with your child to turn negative thoughts into more positive ones. The therapist can also help your child learn healthy ways to cope with stress.12

Your doctor can recommend a mental health professional who works with children who have been exposed to violence or abuse. Many shelters and domestic violence organizations also have support groups for kids.13 These groups can help children by letting them know they are not alone and helping them process their experiences in a nonjudgmental place.14

Is it better to stay in an abusive relationship rather than raise my children as a single parent?

Children do best in a safe, stable, loving environment, whether that’s with one parent or two. You may think that your kids won’t be negatively affected by the abuse if they never see it happen. But children can also hear abuse, such as screaming and the sounds of hitting. They can also sense tension and fear. Even if your kids don’t see you being abused, they can be negatively affected by the violence they know is happening.

If you decide to leave an abusive relationship, you may be helping your children feel safer and making them less likely to tolerate abuse as they get older.15 If you decide not to leave, you can still take steps to protect your children and yourself.

How can I make myself and my children safe right now if I’m not ready to leave an abuser?

Your safety and the safety of your children are the biggest priorities. If you are not yet ready or willing to leave an abusive relationship, you can take steps to help yourself and your children now, including:16

If you are thinking about leaving an abusive relationship, you may want to keep quiet about it in front of your children. Young children may not be able to keep a secret from an adult in their life. Children may say something about your plan to leave without realizing it. If it would be unsafe for an abusive partner to know ahead of time you’re planning to leave, talk only to trusted adults about your plan. It’s better for you and your children to be physically safe than for your children to know ahead of time that you will be leaving.

Did we answer your question about the effects of domestic violence on children?

For more information about the effects of domestic violence on children, call the OWH Helpline at 1-800-994-9662 or check out the following resources from other organizations:

Sources

  1. Modi, M.N., Palmer, S., Armstrong, A. (2014). The Role of Violence Against Women Act in Addressing Intimate Partner Violence: A Public Health Issue. Journal of Women’s Health; 23(3): 253-259.
  2. Gilbert, L.K., Breiding, M.J., Merrick, M.T., Parks, S.E., Thompson, W.W., Dhingra, S.S., Ford, D.C. (2015). Childhood Adversity and Adult Chronic Disease: An update from ten states and the District of Columbia, 2010. American Journal of Preventive Medicine; 48(3): 345-349.
  3. Domestic Violence Roundtable. (n.d.). The Effects of Domestic Violence on Children.
  4. Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2014). Domestic Violence and the Child Welfare System. Washington, DC: Children’s Bureau, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  5. McDonald, R., Jouriles, E.N., Ramisetty-Mikler, S., Caetano, R., Green, C.E. (2006). ). Estimating the Number of American Children Living in Partner-Violent Families. Journal of Family Psychology; 20(1): 137-142.
  6. Vargas, L. Cataldo, J., Dickson, S. (2005). Domestic Violence and Children. In G.R. Walz & R.K. Yep (Eds.), VISTAS: Compelling Perspectives on Counseling. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association; 67-69.
  7. Monnat, S.M., Chandler, R.F. (2015), Long Term Physical Health Consequences of Adverse Childhood Experiences. The Sociologist Quarterly; 56(4): 723-752.
  8. Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2014). Protective Factors Approaches in Child Welfare. Washington, DC: Children’s Bureau, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  9. National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (n.d.). Interventions for Children Exposed to Domestic Violence: Core Principles.  
  10. Caffo, E., Belaise, C. (2003). Psychological aspects of traumatic injury in children and adolescents. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America; 12(3): 493-535.
  11. Deblinger, E., Mannarino, A. P., Cohen, J. A., & Steer, R. A. (2006). A follow-up study of a multisite, randomized, controlled trial for children with sexual abuse-related PTSD symptoms. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry; 45(12): 1474-84. 
  12. Kidshealth.org. (2013). Taking Your Child to a Therapist.
  13. National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (n.d.). Interventions for Children Exposed to Domestic Violence: Core Principles.
  14. Vargas, L., Cataldo, J., Dickson, S. (2005). Domestic Violence and Children. In Walz, G.R., Yep, R.K. (Eds.), VISTAS: Compelling Perspectives on Counseling. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association; 67-69.
  15. Center for Domestic Peace. (2016). Calling the Police.
  16. Loveisrespect.org (n.d.). I Have Children with My Abuser.