Domestic violence is usually considered an adult issue, typically happening when the man of the house causes physical pain to the adult female. However, properly speaking, domestic violence is not always physical and is usually not limited just to the household or just to the adults. Regardless of the child’s perceived involvement level with the abuse (ranging from the child is being abused all the way through the child is protected from the abuse), children continue to suffer the effects because they are forced to witness the abuse, fall victim to it and sometimes become abusers because of the violence of their worlds. These affects are sometimes very severe and are not directly relational to the levels of abuse they experience. In other words, a child who only witnessed abuse may suffer far more profound affects than another child who was a victim, but this is not necessarily so. “Children who witness violence display emotional and behavioral disturbances such as withdrawal, low self-esteem, nightmares and aggression against family, peers and property” (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 2005). Without intervention and a great deal of personal effort, children often grow up to become a part of the abusive cycle themselves with the men tending to become abusers and the women to become victims (McDonnell, Gielen & O’Campo, 2003). The purpose of this paper is to prove that even when children are not at home, domestic violence can have significant effects on them well into the future as they fail to develop appropriate coping skills but usually develop serious emotional and behavior problems.
One of the most startling claims made in this paper is that children growing up in violent households do not need to be direct victims before they suffer harmful effects. Studies have shown that children do not even need to be at home when the violence takes place in order to become victims. According to the Administration for Children and Families (2004), children “can be harmed by witnessing the occurrence of such violence. The witnessing of domestic violence can be auditory, visual, or inferred, including cases in which the child witnesses the aftermath of violence, such as cuts, bruises, or broken limbs.” Because the parents are often preoccupied with their own internal traumas, the children are often neglected within the home, being forced to take care of themselves even at very young ages. This is proven in another study in which it was found that children who witnessed domestic violence are forced to grow up faster than their peers (Newton, 2001). Many of these children are not given the opportunity for a real childhood, thus being able to develop skills and talents according to their physical and mental abilities, but are instead forced to become the parents with no example to follow. They live in constant fear for their family, always expecting the dreaded sound of the footsteps that announce the abuser’s arrival. It becomes their only objective in life to protect themselves, any younger siblings and the abused parent from the abuser and thus sometimes draw actual abuse on themselves. This constant preoccupation with safety and protection “interferes with a child’s normal development of trust and later exploratory behaviors, which lead to the development of autonomy” (Newton, 2001). Children of domestic violence grow up understanding they are in an unsafe world. As a result, they either become exceedingly risky or too afraid to take even the slightest risk, both behaviors that can lead to future trouble.
Children who have been raised from infancy in an abusive environment have no models of appropriate or effective coping methods to follow in their development. “Children who observe or overhear conflicts between adults tend to respond with emotional distress or aggression” (Sternberg & Lamb, 1993, p. 44). Although they undoubtedly make a tremendous attempt to deal effectively with the situation at home, the strain of this effort is telling in that they become either “extremely introverted or extremely extroverted. They develop behavior problems, including aggression and violent outbursts” (Newton 2001). One study of children displaying aggressive behavior problems discovered that most of the children who engaged in this type of behavior learned it from someone in their home (Margolin and Gordis, 2004). While it was determined that most of the violence the children experienced were either witnessed in the home or within their immediate community, it was also acknowledged that children are becoming more attuned to violence through the medium of violent video games in which they are able to experience a ‘kill or be killed’ environment. The issue of the types of programs made available to children today has become an increasing concern within psychological circles. Studies into the levels of violence available to children of all ages has shown that children are being given the impression that violence is positively associated with ideas of cool, fun and excitement. “The average American child, including those searching for moral lessons on television, has seen 16,000 murders and 200,000 total acts of violence by the time he or she reaches 18” (MacFarland, 1999). This may reinforce to children that violent behavior is appropriate especially when other solutions between friends and siblings cannot be solved in any other way, particularly if these messages are reinforced by violence at home.
Children also develop deep emotional difficulties as victims of domestic violence. Just as in the case of behavioral disorders, “children who witness domestic violence can suffer severe emotional difficulties similar to children who are the direct victims of abuse” (Administration for Children and Families, 2004). Emotional disorders that typically emerge in children who are the victims of domestic violence include depression and anxiety. “A child may interpret violence at home and in the community to mean that the world is unsafe and that he or she is unworthy of protection. This interpretation may engender helplessness and lead to negative self-perceptions” (Margolin & Gordis, 2004, p. 153). Fantuzzo and Lindquist (1989) indicated in their study that these children often internalized these feelings, allowing depression, suicidal ideation, specific fears and phobias, enuresis and insomnia to go unnoticed for long periods of time. Low self-esteem in children of violent homes were also found to lead to low social competencies, difficulties in concentration and school work and alarming differences in average scores of verbal, motor and cognitive abilities when compared with children of normal, non-violent homes.
There remain several other types of behavioral problems that emerge in homes with violence among the children of the home as well. In another study conducted by Osofsky (1995, cited in Morgolin & Gordis, 2000), it was found that “exposure to violence can result in ‘regressive’ symptoms such as increased bedwetting, delayed language development and more anxiety over separation from parents.” These effects were seen to be present in children of all ages, including those under the age of 5 who had witnessed violence of some form in the home. In addition, the ability of these children to feel empathy or compassion for others can often be strongly linked to their experience of violence in the home. “The child who is terrified that they might be hurt or killed may have little emotional energy left over to worry about his or her parent. Another child who is not in danger but witnesses violence by one parent towards another may be specifically affected by exposure to that violence” (“Domestic Violence”, 2002). Other behavioral disorders can manifest themselves as the child grows older, primarily in their willingness to become involved in illegal or sexual activity at an earlier age and in their greater tendency to experiment with drug use. These types of effects can have a significant bearing on the child’s ability to associate with other children their age, exacerbating the situation by removing them from the outside support or interaction that could help them recognize the aberrations in their own world or to seek assistance.
One of the common themes experienced by children of abusive relationships is the theme of neglect. When parents are involved in domestic violence, the needs of the child often take a backseat to the survival instinct or the rage. With no examples of love within the home, these children are unsure of their own emotional responses or appropriate outlets. They are unable to develop effective coping techniques and struggle through much of life to learn valuable skills readily available to others. A profound lack of support or guidance for these children is frequently the cause of numerous psychological disturbances that can plague the child through the remainder of their lifetime and even continue to infect future generations through the cycle of abuse. The traumatic effect of witnessing violent behavior and being ignored causes many of these children to engage in destructive behavior in other areas as well. It is clear that regardless of whether the child is the direct recipient of abuse or even present within the home when the violence takes place, the ramifications of domestic violence are incalculable.
- Administration for Children and Families. (2004). “Children and Domestic Violence.” State Statues Series 2004. Washington D.C.
- “Domestic Violence and its Impact on Children’s Development.” (2002). Department of Community Services’ Fourth Domestic Violence Forum. Glebe: Department of Community Services.
- Fantuzzo, J.W. & Lindquist, C.U. (1989). “The Effects of Observing Conjugal Violence on Children: A Review and Analysis of Research Methodology.” Journal of Family Violence. Vol. 4, N. 1, pp. 77-94.
- MacFarland, Andrew. (1999). “TV and Me: Confessions of a Would-Be ‘Go Colonel’ Dancer.” Metro: Silicon Valley’s Weekly Newspaper.
- Margolin, G., & Gordis, E. B. (2000). “The Effects of Family and Community Violence on Children.” Annual Review of Psychology. Vol. 51, pp. 445-479.
- Margolin, G., & Gordis, E. B. (2004). “Children’s Violence Exposure in the Family and Community.” Current Directions in Psychological Science. Vol. 13, pp. 152-155.
- McDonnell, Gielen & O’Campo. (2003). “Does HIV Status Make a Difference in the Experience of Lifetime Abuse? Descriptions of Lifetime Abuse and its Context Among Low-Income Urban Women.” Journal of Urban Health. Vol. 80, N. 3, pp. 494-509.
- National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. (2005). “Children and Domestic Violence Facts.” Washington D.C.: NCADV Public Policy Office.
- Newton. C. J. (2001). “Domestic Violence: An Overview.” Mental Health Journal. TherapistFinder.net. Web.
- Sternberg, K. J. & Lamb, M. E. (1993). “Effects of Domestic Violence on Children’s Behavior Problems and Depression.” Development Psychology. Vol. 29, I. 1, pp. 44-52.