Effects of Domestic Violence on Children

The difference between child and adult victims of domestic violence is that the adult is, at least to some extent, a fully developed person who is physically equipped to take care of her own basic survival needs. An adult has tools available, such as language and reason, to make sense of a difficult experience and to meet emotional needs through support from others. A child’s developing sense of self – of belief in one’s own goodness and in the general goodness of others – is a fragile entity. When the adult surroundings are full of conflict, fear and pain, a child’s growth and emotional well-being can be jeopardized.

Possible Signs and Symptoms of Children Who Witness Domestic Violence

More than half of the school-age children in domestic violence shelters show clinical levels of anxiety or posttraumatic stress disorder (Graham-Bermann, 1994). Without treatment, these children are at significant risk for delinquency, substance abuse, school dropout, and difficulties in their own relationships. Children may exhibit a wide range of reactions to exposure to violence in their home. Here are several examples of typical behavioral characteristics of domestic violence witnesses based on the age of the child:

Younger Children (Preschool and Kindergarten)

  • Tend to believe that they “must have done something wrong”
  • Have feelings of guilt, worry, and anxiety
  • May be withdrawn or non-verbal
  • Display regressive behaviors such as clinging and whining
  • May have eating and sleeping difficulties and concentration problems
  • Experience physical complaints (e.g. headaches, stomachaches)

Pre-Adolescent Children

  • May have eating disorders and sleeping disturbances
  • Show a loss of interest in social activities and have low self-concept
  • May display an avoidance of peer relations or rebellious behaviors
  • Treating pets cruelly or threatening peers or siblings with violence
  • Girls are more likely to exhibit withdrawal style symptoms

Adolescent Children

  • At risk of academic failure and delinquency
  • More likely to drop out of school
  • Show a higher incidence rate of substance abuse
  • Experience a high risk of becoming abused or becoming an abuser in their own adolescent relationships

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