In many abusive relationships, the welfare of the child or children of the couple is ignored even though they are witnessing abuse, and experiencing trauma. The emotions of the child are the least of many people’s worries when parents are involved in an abusive relationship. However, children are always negatively impacted. As children develop through their childhood, exposure to emotionally detrimental events may lead to unhappy feelings or an unfulfilling adulthood. Both the abused parent and child will face emotional change when in an abusive relationship. Adults in abusive relationships tend to be the focus when therapy is offered although many women have difficulty seeking help when they believe it is only themselves who are at risk. However, there have been a number of studies conducted investigating the effects that domestic violence has on young children that illustrate even children not directly involved as victims of violence can suffer long-term negative effects that can be continued well into their adulthood.
Children growing up in violent households do not necessarily need to be direct victims of the abuse to suffer harmful effects from it. According to the Administration for Children and Families (2004), children can be witnesses and harmed by auditory, visual or inferred violence such as the aftereffects of violence in the form of bruises, scratches, etc. In addition, children who witnessed domestic violence are forced to grow up faster than their peers (Newton, 2001). Many of them do not have any real childhood because their roles at home have changed.
They worry about their families and the unexpected when the abusers come home. They learn to protect themselves as well as their mothers from the abusers and others. To accomplish these goals, children of violent households are forced to take on responsibilities they are not prepared or equipped to handle that can easily turn to disaster. Furthermore, it also “interferes with a child’s normal development of trust and later exploratory behaviors, which lead to the development of autonomy” (Newton, 2001, p 8). Children grow up understanding they are in an unsafe world and become afraid to take risks or too willing to take on unacceptable risks, perceptions that often lead to the development of behavior problems.
As might be inferred from above, immature children thrust into a dysfunctional adult situation have limited coping methods to deal with the violence they find around them. Children may try to cope with what is going on at home but the effect of the strain invariably causes them to become “extremely introverted or extremely extroverted. They develop behavior problems, including aggression and violent outbursts” (Newton 2001, p 8). A study by Margolin and Gordis (2004) indicates most of the children involved in their study regarding aggressive behavioral problems learned their violent behaviors from the examples set in their home environment. The strongest models children receive of this violence remain the witnessing of violence within their homes or within their immediate community. This may reinforce to children that violent behavior is appropriate especially when other solutions between friends and siblings cannot be readily solved in any other way. Having learned at home that the natural outlet for suppressed emotion is violence, aggression becomes the most common form of behavior problem exhibited by children from homes suffering domestic violence (MacFarland, 1999).
There remain several other types of behavioral problems emerging among children growing up in homes experiencing domestic violence. In another study conducted by Osofsky (1995, as cited in Morgolin & Gordis, 2000), it was found that “exposure to violence can result in ‘regressive’ symptoms such as increased bedwetting, delayed language development and more anxiety over separation from parents.” (Domestic Violence and its impact children’s development, 2002, p. 1). These effects were seen to be present in children of all ages, including those under the age of 5 who had witnessed violence of some form in the home. In addition, the ability of these children to feel empathy or compassion for others can often be strongly linked to their experience of violence in the home.
“The child who is terrified that they might be hurt or killed may have little emotional energy left over to worry about his or her parent. Another child who is not in danger but witnesses violence by one parent towards another may be specifically affected by exposure to that violence” (Domestic Violence, 2002, p. 2). Other behavioral disorders can manifest themselves as the child grows older, primarily in their willingness to become involved in illegal or sexual activity at an earlier age and in their greater tendency to experiment with drug use. These types of effects can have a significant bearing on the child’s ability to associate with other children their age, exacerbating the situation by removing them from outside support or interaction that could help them recognize the aberrations in their own world or encourage them to seek assistance (Domestic Violence, 2002, p. 2).
Children also develop deep emotional difficulties as victims of domestic violence. Just as in the case of behavioral disorders, “children who witness domestic violence can suffer severe emotional difficulties similar to children who are the direct victims of abuse” (Administration for Children and Families, 2004, p.2). Emotional disorders that typically emerge in children who are the victims of domestic violence include depression and anxiety. “A child may interpret violence at home and in the community to mean that the world is unsafe and that he or she is unworthy of protection.
This interpretation may engender helplessness and lead to negative self-perceptions” (Margolin & Gordis, 2004, p. 153). Fantuzzo and Lindquist (1989) indicated in their study that these children often internalize these feelings, allowing depression, suicidal ideation, specific fears and phobias, enuresis and insomnia to go unnoticed for long periods of time. Fantuzzo and Lindquist (1989) indicated that low self-esteem in children of violent homes was also found to lead to low social competencies, difficulties in concentration and schoolwork and alarming differences in average scores of verbal, motor and cognitive abilities when compared with children of normal, non-violent homes.
These results are supported and extended by further studies into the psychological impact on children of witnessing violence in the home. Studies that support this concept include those conducted by Hurley and Jaffe (1990) and Jaffe et al. (1990). In each study, children who experienced domestic violence demonstrated significantly lower self-esteem and poorer social competence. They reported feeling shame, guilt, fear, sadness, helplessness and isolation as a result of the violence they had witnessed regardless of the age of the child participating in the study. Infants and toddlers who witness violence may be fussy and distressed, and will have problems eating and sleeping (Carlson, 2000, as cited in Cunningham, A. & Baker. 2004). Part of the anti-social aspect of being a child from a violent home is also attributed to the desire on the part of the child to appear normal. This aspect is illustrated in a study conducted by Hughes (1992), who discovered many of the children in his study placed tremendous energy into putting on a brave face for the world despite their quick willingness to communicate their distress when questioned by an authority figure.
As the literature clearly demonstrates, children who experience violence at a young age are at an extremely high risk for a variety of problems ranging from physical and emotional through societal and behavioral. The importance of studies in the prevention of domestic violence is highlighted through evidence of the prevalence and effects of domestic violence upon children of all ages. It has been noted that these effects are not simply physical or biological issues, but can also affect the child’s future ability to build and maintain healthy relationships as adults as well as their current social, behavioral and cognitive abilities.
Regardless of the developmental theory subscribed to, evidence is overwhelming that if intervention is not provided to children who live in homes where domestic violence is present these children have significantly increased chances for continuing the cycle of abuse into the future. Because it is unlikely that domestic violence will be completely eliminated as a danger in the near future, future research should investigate more fully various treatment therapies that will assist these children to overcome the ill effects of their experiences should be investigated. Possible options include traditional therapy, play therapy, art therapy, music therapy or film therapy. If the cycle of abuse is to be stopped, it must occur at the level of the children most in danger of repeating it.
Administration for Children and Families. Children and domestic violence. (State Statues Series 2004).
Cunningham, A. & Baker, L. “What about me! Seeking to understand the child’s view of violence in the family.” Center for Children and Families in the Justice System, 2004.
“Domestic violence and its impact on children’s development.” (Department of Community Services’ Fourth Domestic Violence Forum). Glebe: Department of Community Services, (2002).
Fantuzzo, J.W. & Lindquist, C.U. “The effects of observing conjugal violence on children: A review and analysis of research methodology.” Journal of Family Violence. Vol. 4, N. 1, (1989): pp. 77-94.
Hughes, H. “Impact of spouse abuse on children of battered women.” Violence Update. (1992): pp. 9-11.
Hurley, D.J., & Jaffe, P. “Children’s observations of violence: Clinical implications for children’s mental health professionals.” Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. Vol. 35, N. 6, (1990): pp. 471-476.
Jaffe, P.G., Wolfe, D.A., & Wilson, S.K. “Children of battered women.” Developmental Clinical Psychology and Psychiatry. Vol. 21. Newbury Park: Sage Publications, (1990).
MacFarland, Andrew. “TV and me: Confessions of a would-be ‘Go Colonel’ dancer.” Metro: Silicon Valley’s Weekly Newspaper. (1999).
Margolin, G., & Gordis, E. B. “Children’s violence exposure in the family and community.” Current Directions in Psychological Science. Vol. 13, (2004): pp. 152-155.
Newton. C. J. “Domestic violence: An overview.” Mental Health Journal. (2001).