Domestic Violence Hurts Kids Too

Many children who witness domestic violence have been found to have higher levels of behavioural and emotional problems than other children. The impact varies according to their age, sex, and role in the family. Some children feel responsible for the violence. They may think they are making things easier for their mother by appearing to cope with the situation, by trying to be quieter, and by not saying how they feel. While most children escape without physical injury they may bear emotional scars which in many cases can last a lifetime.

What can we do for children?

Firstly we need to understand and accept that witnessing domestic violence harms children. We need to place the responsibility for the violence with the offending parent, and support the abused parent in order to improve her capacity to protect her children. Most importantly, children who witness domestic violence need to know they are not forgotten.

The effects on children who witness domestic violence may include:

A number of concerns, behaviors and disturbances have been repeatedly observed in the children of battered women who have left. Among these are the following:

  • General fearfulness
  • Hypervigilance (exaggerated, constant fears of impending danger)
  • Nightmares
  • Various troubled responses to fear, anger and sadness
  • Anxieties around separation and loss
  • Indiscriminate, quickly-formed attachments to unfamiliar adults
  • Confusion regarding parental loyalties
  • Ambivalence about fathers (typically, feelings of intense rage and longing exist side by side -- a combination most children are not yet developmentally equipped to handle and which leaves them feeling torn apart, needing to disavow huge aspects of their own identities)
  • Feelings of powerlessness and defensive responses to this, including identification with the aggressor (i.e., in terms of survival, it is experienced as better to be "big and bad" -- like dad -- than weak and terrified -- like mom)
  • An exaggerated sense of guilt and responsibility for protecting a parent and often younger siblings as well. This is related to the syndrome of the "parentified child," which also includes awareness and behavior which is old beyond one's years accompanied by an attitude that it is not acceptable or safe to feel, be or behave like a child.
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Counterphobic behavior (a drive to recreate circumstances which have in the past been responded to violently in order that one may experience oneself as being the cause -- and thus in control -- of one's own pain and terror)
  • Difficulty resolving conflicts with siblings and other children; as well as a tendency to aggressively act out.

Many of these conditions and/or behaviors first begin to emerge after a child and his or her mother have left. Only then, once he or she has established a sense of being out of imminent danger, will a child feel safe enough to let the pent-up responses to trauma surface and begin to play themselves out in spontaneous efforts to self-heal and to master indigestible experiences.



Children of Abused Mothers at Risk for School and Health Problems Effects of Domestic Violence on Children and Adolescents: An Overview
Adressing the effects of DV on children  

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