Impact on Children
How does family violence affect Children?
Children who witness abuse display the same emotional responses as children who have been physically and emotionally abused.
The family is the place where a child learns about the world. Living in a family where parents are physically or verbally abusive to each other, a child learns that:
- The world is an unstable and insecure place
- Parents are unpredictable in their roles as caregivers and partners
- Violence is the best way to solve problems
- I have to be in control to be OK
- It is my fault that my parents fight
- People sometimes deserve to be hit
- Love is painful
The violent family setting demonstrates the following characteristics:
- Modeling of aggression
- Disrespect towards women/Boys must be powerful and controlling
- Limited modeling of positive coping strategies (family problem-solving, decision making)
- Disturbed family system, i.e. Blurred boundaries between children and parents
- Maladaptive alliances, i.e. Children and Father ganging up on Mom
- Negative communications, lack of effective communication skills
- Inconsistent and /or inappropriate discipline, mixed messages
In reaction to crisis in the violent family setting, children may have difficulty:
- Reacting to actual or perceived parental separation, exhibited by denial, anger, depression.
- Coping with stressors in the family, i.e. financial problems, unemployment, Mom’s emotional state, police involvement, daily routine, reactions from other family members.
- Expressing their feelings; due to the secrecy and closed family system children are not allowed to talk about the violence outside of the family.
Common problems that children growing up in violent families exhibit:
- Low self-esteem
- Negative attention-getting behaviors
- Aggressive, explosive, impulsive
- Passivity; withdrawn
- Controlling behaviors
- Limited pro-social skills
- “Little adult”- Has difficulty having fun; takes on adult responsibilities, inhibited.
- Regression to more immature behaviors
- “Discipline problems”
- School avoidance
- General anxiety, depression
- Premature involvement in sexual relations
- Afraid to make mistakes; perfectionistic or afraid to try
- Afraid to be children, i.e. make noise, have fun, be free
Children growing up in violent families have a heightened need for:
- Nurturance, support, and reassurance
- Predictability in relationships
- Consistency in parenting and daily routines
- Control in relationships
- Sensitivity to and constructive outlets for their feelings
Here are some interesting facts about children and domestic violence:
- Over half of female domestic violence victims live in households with children under the age of 12.
- Research indicates that up to 90 percent of children living in homes where there is domestic violence know what is going on.
- In a study of more than 6,000 families in the United States, it was reported that half of the men who physically abused their wives also abused their children. Also, older children are frequently assaulted when they interfere to defend or protect the victim.
- A child’s exposure to domestic violence is the strongest risk factor for transmitting violent behavior from one generation to the next.
- Childhood abuse and trauma has a high correlation to both emotional and physical problems in adulthood, including tobacco use, substance abuse, obesity, cancer, heart disease, depression and a higher risk for unintended pregnancy.
What can you do?
- If your child is witnessing abuse in your home, what you’re experiencing is likely made even worse by the worry and concern you feel for your child. It’s important to remember that both you and your children’s needs are important.
- Children may respond differently to witnessing abuse. They may withdraw, or they might act out. They might pretend it’s no big deal, or they may quickly show signs of trauma, such as anxiety, sleep disruption or problems in school. Children can experience a range of emotions when living in abusive households including fear, anger, isolation and guilt. They may even feel conflicted about loving their abusive parent. These are very normal feelings, and it’s important that they be validated.
- It’s normal for people who have been in a violent relationship to NOT want to talk to their kids about it. It might seem safer to pretend that the abuse didn’t happen, assume that the kids don’t know about it or hope they will just forget about it. But, denying or ignoring abuse can actually create more confusion and fear, so it’s important to talk to your children about what’s going on whenever possible.
- Have conversations. Let children know that it’s okay to talk about what has happened. Stress that abuse is wrong, but avoid criticizing the abuser if they are a parent or parent-figure to the child.
- Remind your kids that the abuse is never their fault. Make sure that they know that you care about them. Children are extremely resilient, and while the impact of abuse can be long lasting, knowing that they have someone to depend on that loves them will help them heal.
- Above all, proceed with caution and listen to your instincts. Tap into what you feel is best for both you and your child. There are often pros and cons of either staying with or leaving an abusive partner. It can be a dangerous situation either way. If you do decide to leave your relationship, consider when and how to best leave. Allow children to be open about their feelings in the process, and devise a safety plan (whether staying or leaving).