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Domestic Violence: Effects on Children

We know that children who are living in an environment where domestic abuse has occurred are often silent victims of abuse, even when they are not the targeted victims. Almost all children know if violence is occurring in their home and are affected by it in many ways.

Children who witness domestic violence experience many of the same feelings of adult victims, but at their own developmental level.

Children may feel:

  • Powerless and helpless
  • Confused and anxious
  • Bad
  • Angry
  • Self-blaming and insecure
  • Guilty about loving the abusive parent
  • Guilty about not protecting abused parent
  • Worried about the future
  • Worried about the possible loss of a parent
  • Hopeless
  • Divided loyalty
  • Numb

The children are likely to be traumatized by what they see and/or experience. Without the ability or opportunity to process their feelings, children may learn:

  • Other people are responsible for my behavior
  • I am responsible for other people's behavior
  • Men have the right to control women
  • Violence is an appropriate way to solve problems
  • My mom is to blame for my dad's violence
  • The violence is my mom's fault
  • Women have no rights
  • My mom can't protect me
  • Nothing is safe
  • Domestic violence is normal
  • Intimidation is the way to get what I want
  • Other people have the right to abuse me
  • My dad's violence is my fault
  • It's OK to abuse my mom

Children who don't find safe ways to talk about their feelings may act out in many different ways:

  • Regress: bedwetting, temper tantrums
  • Take on too much responsibility for their age
  • Earlier childhood fears return
  • Aggressive to other kids, brothers and sisters, pets
  • Treat Mom like Dad treats her
  • Have problems concentrating and easily distracted
  • Fight at school
  • Get bad grades
  • Lie, steal
  • Act withdrawn and unusually shy
  • Forgetful
  • Have trouble sleeping
  • Very anxious
  • Physical illness: stomach aches, nausea, headaches
  • Startle easily
  • Unable to play
  • Highly sensitive to noise
  • Eating disorders
  • Strive for perfection
  • Attempt to be invisible
  • Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) symptoms (Some children who have lived in homes where domestic violence occurred are incorrectly diagnosed with ADD. They may be given medication for ADD when they may really need counseling and support for having witnessed domestic violence. You can help by telling the counselor that your child has witnessed domestic violence and may be reacting to it.)

**Some of this text was adapted from Helping Children Who Witness Domestic Violence: A Guide for Parents, by Meg Crager and Lily Anderson.