Children Who Witness Domestic Violence
In cases of domestic violence, much focus is put on the primary victim of the abuse. But what about the witnesses? Recent studies have shown that every year over 3 million children are exposed to acts of violence between their primary caregivers.
The Unseen Victims
Many assume that children who witness domestic violence are perhaps too young to be affected. Many also assume that children are resilient enough to be left unscathed by the experience. More still assume that the domestic violence goes unnoticed by the children in the home. Unfortunately, these assumptions couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Whether children witness violence directly or not, most are affected more deeply than we realize. Research has shown that 80 to 90% of children who live in homes where domestic abuse occurs are aware of the violence – whether they actually see incidents, hear threats, or observe the results of abuse like bruises, blood, and broken items.
Children are so often the unseen victims when domestic violence occurs. Even if children are not directly abused, domestic violence between parents can leave deep emotional scars. Children react to a violent environment in different ways, but the isolation, shame and control of an abusive atmosphere will always leave a mark.
Just a few common results include:
- Shame, guilt and embarrassment
- Fear – especially of abandonment
- Anger and aggression
- Depression and withdrawal
- Acting out for attention
- Reduced intellectual and social competence
- Manipulative, dishonest, or exploitative tendencies
- Passivity to bullying
- Difficulty trusting or opening up to others
- Self-abuse and poor hygiene
Of course, these are just a few surface symptoms of a much deeper pain. In many cases, the degree to which a child is affected by exposure to domestic violence is directly related to the child’s age. Younger children are generally far more vulnerable to deep and lasting wounds from witnessing violence in the home. The frequency with which children witness violence also plays a role in long-term effects, as does the child’s proximity to the violence and what the child actually sees or hears.
When children witness domestic violence, the effects are often more far-reaching than many realize. Children from violent homes are at far greater risk of abusing drugs and alcohol. Some experts have suggested that children who witness their mother being abused are six times more likely to leave home too early. Further, children who grow up around domestic abuse often suffer greater suicidal tendencies and are more likely to break the law.
Sadly, children who witness (or are subjected to) domestic violence often come to believe that abusive relationships are “normal” and that violence is an acceptable way to resolve conflict. This leads to an ongoing cycle of perpetuated violence in the home. Boys especially are inclined to perpetuate this cycle of domestic violence, and many do indeed become abusers themselves.
However, the opposite is also true: many children who witness domestic violence go on to be abused themselves. Girls in particular often develop the belief that violence in a relationship is normal. Statistics show that girls who witness their mother being abused are over six times more likely to become involved in sexually or physically abusive relationships.
Children live what they learn. Unless the chain is broken, the cycle of abuse continues from one generation to the next. In order to break the chain, the problem must be acknowledged and help provided to all victims involved.