What is the Impact of Domestic Violence on Children?

Domestic violence can have catastrophic and long-lasting effects on children. Children who grow up in households with domestic violence are more likely to have a variety of emotional, behavioral, and mental health issues. Included among them are depression, anxiety, poor self-esteem, anger, and trouble forming healthy relationships.

Key takeaways:

What is domestic violence?

According to the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Women’s Health, more than 15 million children in the United States live in families where domestic violence has happened at least once. As adults, these youngsters are more likely to engage in violent relationships or become abusers. A young man who witnesses his mother's violence is ten times more likely to attack his future girlfriend. A girl who grows up in a household where her father assaults her mother is six times more likely to experience sexual assault than a girl who does not.

Different forms of domestic violence

Domestic violence can take various forms, including:

  • Physical abuse. This is the deliberate use of violence such as punching, slapping, dragging, choking, and the use of weapons.
  • Emotional abuse. This involves verbal abuse such as incessant criticisms, insults, and bullying, as well as social isolation by restricting a person's contact with others.
  • Sexual abuse. This includes rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment.
  • Financial abuse. This occurs when a person controls another person's access to money or resources, such as by restricting their capacity to work or incurring debts in their name.

Coercive control

Coercive control is a problem that can occur in any type of relationship, including those involving children. It is a form of emotional abuse that can have long-lasting and detrimental effects on a child's development, mental and emotional well-being.

The following example, will show how a father who is using coercive control will use various tactics to exert power and control over his daughter, such as:

  • Isolation. Isolating her from friends and family.
  • Communication. Monitoring her emails, text messages, and social media activities.
  • Control. Controlling her access to money.
  • Emotional manipulation. He may use guilt-tripping, blame, and other tactics to make her feel responsible for his moods.
  • Abuse. He may physically or sexually abuse her, and may threaten to hurt her or other family members if she tells anyone.
  • Threats. He may threaten to hurt her, or even kill her if she doesn't comply with his demands.

These examples are not exhaustive, and different abusers may use different tactics. It's also worth mentioning that coercive control can happen in any gender and any relation, not only fathers and daughters.

Child development stages and domestic violence

Domestic violence (DV) has a profound effect on the phases of a child's development. Children at various stages of development might respond to and experience DV differently.

  1. Prenatal stage. Domestic violence can have an impact on children even before they are born. Pregnancy can lead to the onset of domestic violence or an escalation of it. During their pregnancy, women who are expecting may become more dependent on their partners, both financially and emotionally. Mothers can also turn to coping behaviors such as drug or alcohol use, which can lead to Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.
  2. Infants and toddlers (birth to 2 years old). Babies can feel distressed in a noisy and chaotic environment with no structure or consistency. This can make infants susceptible to illness or create feeding and sleeping issues. The parent, who may be preoccupied with appeasing the abuser, may not always prioritize the baby's needs. Both the parent-child bond and the infant's physical development will suffer under these conditions.
  3. Preschoolers (ages 3 to 5). Children of this age often struggle to express what they are thinking or feeling. They may instead communicate their thoughts and emotions through their behavior. Children may behave the same way as the abusive parent. This might entail lashing out at other children.
  4. Children of school age (6 to 12 years old). Children of this age can develop aggressive behaviors and struggle to obey rules and make friends. They may experience fear, worry, guilt, shame, sadness, poor self-esteem, or post-traumatic stress disorder accompanied by disturbing flashbacks. What is most disturbing is that the child can learn that violence in a relationship is normal, leading to the core belief that violence is a behavior that can be used to get them what they want.
  5. Teenagers (aged 13 to 18). Teenagers are particularly vulnerable and at risk of dating violent partners. They can also fall into trouble with law enforcement. In addition, they may struggle in school, drop out, or run away from home. If they have already had depression, then it will more than likely intensify, which can lead to suicidal ideation or PTSD. To cope with these emotions, they may attempt self-harm, misuse substances, develop eating disorders, or engage in unsafe sexual behavior.

Can children recover from domestic abuse?

Yes, children can recover, but the process of recovery can take time and is best carried out by a specialist with expertise in this area. Recovery is a unique process for each child and may depend on a variety of factors, such as the severity of the abuse, the child's age, and the support network they have in place.

Domestic violence – tips for recovery:

With the right help and support, children can learn to process their experiences, build resilience, and develop healthy coping mechanisms. There are three particularly important areas of development that children need to address in their recovery: healthy relationship dynamics, boundaries, and resilience.

Healthy relationship dynamics

Teaching children who have been exposed to domestic violence about healthy relationship dynamics can be an important step in helping them heal and move forward. Here are a few steps you can take to help your child learn about healthy relationships:

  • Talk openly and honestly. Talk to your child about what they have witnessed and explain that violence is not okay or acceptable.
  • Encourage healthy communication. Teach your child that it is okay to express their feelings, needs, and boundaries and that it's important to listen and respect others' feelings and boundaries, too.
  • Model healthy relationships. Show your child what healthy relationships look like by setting a good example in your own relationships and interactions with others.
  • Educate about consent. Teach your child about the importance of consent in relationships and that it's not okay for anyone to hurt or force them in any way.
  • Help them understand healthy and unhealthy relationship dynamics. This involves teaching about mutual respect, trust, open communication, and equality versus control, manipulation, and abuse.
  • Make them aware of your support. Reassure them that they can come to you or other trusted adults if they ever feel unsafe or uncomfortable in a relationship.

Setting boundaries

  • Model healthy boundaries. Show your child what healthy boundaries look like by setting clear boundaries in your own relationships and interactions with others.
  • Encourage them to be assertive. Teach your child that it is okay to say "no" and to speak up when they feel uncomfortable or unsafe.
  • Help them understand the concept of "personal space". Everyone has the right to their own personal space.
  • What boundaries are. Discuss different types of boundaries, such as physical, emotional, and digital boundaries, and how they can be set and respected.
  • Use role-playing. Use role-playing and other interactive activities to help your child practice setting and enforcing their boundaries in different situations.

Teaching resilience

Resilience in children is important because it allows them to adapt and bounce back from difficult experiences, such as abuse, neglect, poverty, or trauma. It helps children develop the emotional and psychological strength necessary to overcome challenges and achieve their full potential. Additionally, resilient children are more likely to have positive relationships, be successful in school and work, and lead fulfilling lives as adults.

Here are a some ways to help a child build resilience:

  • Provide emotional support. Let your child know they are not to blame for the abuse and that they are safe now. Listen to their feelings and validate their experiences.
  • Emotional intelligence. Children may not have the language or understanding to express their feelings, so it is important to help them understand what they are feeling and why.
  • Encourage healthy coping mechanisms. Help your child develop healthy ways to cope with their feelings, such as through art, music, or exercise.
  • Create a sense of safety and stability. Create a consistent and predictable environment for your child.
  • Encourage positive relationships. Surround your child with positive role models and supportive family members or friends.
  • Help them find meaning and purpose. Help your child find activities and interests that give them a sense of purpose and accomplishment.
  • Encourage self-care. Teach your child self-care techniques such as mindfulness, deep breathing, and journaling.
  • Be patient. Building resilience in a child after experiencing domestic abuse is a process and it will take time.

While the effects of domestic violence on children can be severe and long-lasting, it is important to remember that recovery is possible. With the right help and a strong support system, children can learn to heal, grow, and develop the skills they need to lead fulfilling and successful lives.

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