Effects of Domestic Violence on Children: Cycle of Violence

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Domestic violence involves systematic patterns of abuse whether physical, psychological, sexual, emotional, financial, or technological geared toward maintaining control over the victim. This form of violence has long-term negative impacts on its victims, especially children due to the associated psychological implications. Children have not developed the mental capabilities to process and deal with domestic violence and thus its effects could shape their lives later in adulthood. According to Hillis et al. (2016), the available statistics show that over 1 billion children aged between two and seventeen experience at least one form of domestic violence annually.

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The rate at which children become victims of domestic violence is high; hence, the need for addressing this issue. One major concern with domestic violence on children is what Wright et al. (2019) refer to as the “cycle of violence” whereby abused children are likely to become abusers themselves and as this cycle continues, the society becomes an unsafe place for children to grow up. This paper reviews the available literature on the cycle of violence caused by domestic violence on children as supported by the learning cycle theory.

Domestic Violence and the Cycle of Violence

Children who witness or are victims of domestic violence suffer significant psychological damage with long-lasting effects. This form of violence negatively affects both the current and future relationships, which is worrying given that domestic violence among children is a global epidemic. According to the available literature, children who witness or become victims of domestic violence have poorer psychological outcomes later in life as compared to those who do not have such experiences (Tsavoussis et al., 2014). Domestic violence on children affects their developmental process, especially psychologically, which explains why the effects of such abuse could be felt even in adulthood.

Domestic Violence and Child Development

The psychological development of a child is subject to the surrounding environment, which acts as a central shaping aspect of all aspects of life. The effects of domestic violence on children could even start before birth due to the psychological distress that a mother experiences through domestic abuse. Howell et al. (2016) argue that a mother’s “level of distress during pregnancy affects parental warmth, caregiving and the development of healthy attachment patterns” (p. 45).

However, the effects of such psychological distress on unborn children do not abate after birth. The continued abuse of a mother affects how she relates with her children especially the attachment aspect of it. A study involving 72 mothers and their infants (15 months old) showed that children born to victims of intimate partner violence had an insecure attachment to their mothers (Levendosky et al., 2011). Such children are likely to internalize such behaviors as normal and grow into violent adults.

In most cases, children look up to their parents or caregivers for basic needs, safety, and role modeling. Therefore, when children witness abuse perpetrated toward their parents, they internalize such information as normal, and this aspect has long-term implications. By the time children attain school-going age, they can know what is happening around them and make sense of it. According to Howell et al. (2016), at this age, when children experience or witness domestic violence, they could easily suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and thus they face various challenges in developing and maintaining relationships, which significantly increases the chances of having maladaptive peer relations.

Consequently, the affected children are likely to have constant conflicts with friends, which could easily lead to being isolated and living a lonely life. A study by Lloyd (2018) showed a strong correlation between witnessing or experiencing domestic violence and bullying and victimization. In other words, the process of connecting with other children and initiating healthy relationships is hindered leading to victimization and bullying in some cases.

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The psychological effects of domestic violence on school-going children are mainly related to internalizing and externalizing problems. One study showed examined posttraumatic stress symptoms “in a sample of IPV-exposed and non-exposed children and found that slightly more than half of the children who witnessed IPV suffered from intrusive thoughts regarding the exposure and 42% exhibited symptoms of hyperarousal” (Howell et al., 2016, p. 48). These children suffer from an array of psychological disorders including depression, anxiety, and anger among other related problems.

In adolescence, individuals are seeking identity formation and the understanding of self. At this age, adolescents have a growing sense of autonomy as they expand their social relationships. The effects of domestic violence in adolescence are multilayered because this period is marked by an increased possibility of experiencing other forms of violence from multiple sources. Therefore, domestic violence compounds the problem at a time when adolescents start dating and engaging in meaningful social relationships. According to Temple et al. (2013), adolescents who witness domestic violence are likely to accept it in their dating lives as a way of conflict resolution. Therefore, the cycle of violence is promoted further in a two-pronged way.

On the one hand, an adolescent who accepts abuse as a way of resolving conflict perpetrates the cycle further because this behavior is allowed to persist. In their research, Temple et al. (2013) found that girls who had witnessed domestic violence are likely to be victims of the same in a teenage relationship because their worldview is mediated by attitudes that accept violence. On the other hand, boys, who have been victims of domestic violence, are likely to perpetrate the same in their intimate relationships because they have modeled their beliefs around violence (Temple, 2013).

Victims of domestic violence are likely to portray aggressive behavior with their peers and dating partners. According to Howell et al. (2016), there is a strong correlation between witnessing domestic violence among adolescents and the prevalence of PTSD and other major depressive episodes. The underlying question at this point would be the driving force behind these behavioral patterns, which could be explained through the learning social theory, social-psychological strain theory, and neurobiological theory.

Theoretical Basis of Cycle of Violence

Learning Social Theory

Various theories have been put forward to explain the underlying concepts of the cycle of violence, but the learning social theory presents highly plausible propositions. This theory by Albert Bandura argues that abused children “adopt the violent behavior patterns they experience from their parents through parental modeling and observational learning” (Milaniak & Widom, 2015, p. 246). On the one hand, children could become aggressive because they have seen the same behavior from their parents. As such, being violent becomes the norm because the behavior is borrowed from a figure of authority or a role model – the parent.

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Similarly, as Temple et al. (2013) argue, girls who see their mothers being abused by their male partners could internalize this information as the norm and thus become accepting of the same later in life, which furthers the cycle of violence. On their part, boys who see their fathers abusing their female partners could also normalize this behavior and perpetuate it later in life. In other words, children are constantly learning from their parents’ actions and whatever they see becomes their reality.

On the other hand, looking at the other side of social learning theory presents another explanation of the cycle of violence. According to Milaniak and Widom (2015), the social processing theory, which is part of social learning theory, holds that abused children could fail to “attend to appropriate social cues or misinterprets them by attributing hostile intentions to others and generally conceptualizes the world as an aggressive and violent place” (p. 246). Therefore, living in a violent environment would require the abused child to be aggressive and violent as the only way of survival. Ultimately, the cycle of violence grows further with the root cause being that such individuals witnessed or experienced domestic violence as children.

Social-Psychological Strain Theory (SPST)

This theory focuses on how strain shapes individuals’ perspectives toward socially accepted behaviors. According to Agnew (1992), the strain theory differs from the learning theory in the specification of the type of social relationship that contributes to domestic violence and the motivation for such behaviors. First, this theory focuses on the effects of negative relationships that abused children have with their parents.

In this case, these children are not treated with dignity and thus they might grow bitter as they age and as a way of dealing with the build-up emotions, they might resort to perpetrating domestic violence themselves (Smith et al., 2008). Abused children might fail to internalize conventional social beliefs to form healthy relationships with others. Consequently, this mismatch between what is acceptable and the misconstrued worldview formed from an abusive past could easily lead to the normalization of violence later in life.

The second aspect of SPST in explaining the cycle of violence is the motivation behind the perpetration of violence by previously abused children. According to Agnew (1992), this theory holds that individuals could be motivated to engage in violence by negative affective states, especially anger, resentment, and other related emotions. Such negative attributes could deprive individuals of the objectivity needed in sound decision-making. As argued earlier, abused children are likely to suffer from PTSD and other related mental problems, which affect the normal functioning of the brain. This argument raises the issue of the role of neurobiological adaptations to violence during the development of children.

Neurobiological Theory

Throughout this paper, PTSD has been cited as a major contributor to the cycle of violence. Therefore, it is important to understand how the brain adapts to a maladaptive environment characterized by violence. From a biological point of view, “adaptation refers to changes that an organism or group of organisms undergo to increase their likelihood of survival within the environment that elicited the adaptation” (Mead et al., 2010, p. 1). These changes could occur in various ways including anatomical structures, behaviorally, and physiologically. The available evidence shows that human brains portray adaptive attributes that support functional adjustments when individuals are exposed to violent environments. Understanding the link between brain functions and adaptive behaviors requires a closer look into genetics.

One study focusing on the role of genes in developing conduct disorder found that exposure to maltreatment “increased the likelihood of CD by 2% among children at lowest genetic risk (MZ twin did not have CD), but by 24% among children at high genetic risk (MZ twin had CD)” (Mead et al., 2010, p. 3). In this case, some children are prone to violence due to their genetic disposition. Under normal circumstances, the expression of these genes could be mediated by environmental circumstances, such as caring parents and supportive social relationships.

Similarly, when children with a high genetic risk of violence are exposed to domestic violence, such genes are expressed, and given that the genotype shapes the phenotype (Tsavoussis et al., 2014), different brain regions could be altered thus predisposing such individuals to violence. The affected persons could lack the capacity to handle depressive situations, and thus instead of using socially acceptable ways of dealing with conflict or handling stress, they could resort to violence. They lack the requisite skills to deal with conflict in a relationship and violence becomes the only way out, hence the cycle of violence, which started in childhood continues in adulthood.


The findings of this study agree with the “cycle of violence” claim that children who have been exposed to domestic violence are likely to perpetuate the same behavior as adults. As such, the problem of domestic violence becomes an unending cycle and a major public health issue. The findings show that the problem starts even before a child is born when the mother is subjected to domestic violence (Howell et al., 2016).

Levendosky et al. (2011) agree with this argument by noting that such children normally have negative psychosocial outcomes. Domestic violence affects children differently during the various stages of development. By the time children attain school-going age, they can interpret and internalize the occurrences in their milieu. Temple et al. (2013) raise an important issue that abused girls are likely to accept abuse as a way of conflict resolution later in life, while boys are likely to become abusers.

This review has presented three theories to explain the cycle of violence phenomenon among abused children. Milaniak and Widom (2015) and Temple et al. (2013) agree that children learn by seeing what is happening around them, which explains why abused children are likely to perpetuate the same, by either being accepting or an abuser according to the social learning theory. The socio-psychological strain theory as explained by Agnew (1992) and backed by Smith et al. (2008) holds that strain could be the trigger that leads to domestic abuse among those abused as children. Mead et al. (2010) and Tsavoussis et al. (2014) present a neurobiological explanation of the cycle of violence by noting that the affected children could have altered brain structures and functions, which predisposes them to future acts of violence. The various authors discussed in this paper generally agree on the underlying causes of the cycle of violence.


Agnew, R. (1992). Foundation for a general strain theory of crime and delinquency. Criminology, 30(1), 47-88.

Hillis, S., Mercy, J., Amobi, A., & Kress, H. (2016). Global prevalence of past-year violence against children: A systematic review and minimum estimates. Pediatrics, 137(3), 1-15. Web.

Howell, K. H., Barnes, S. E., Miller, L. E., & Graham-Bermann, S. A. (2016). Developmental variations in the impact of intimate partner violence exposure during childhood. Journal of Injury & Violence Research, 8(1), 43–57. Web.

Levendosky, A. A., Bogat, G. A., Huth-Bocks, A. C., Rosenblum, K., & von Eye, A. (2011). The effects of domestic violence on the stability of attachment from infancy to preschool. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 40(3), 398–410. Web.

Lloyd M. (2018). Domestic violence and education: Examining the impact of domestic violence on young children, children, and young people and the potential role of schools. Frontiers in Psychology, 9(2094), 1-11. Web.

Mead, H. K., Beauchaine, T. P., & Shannon, K. E. (2010). Neurobiological adaptations to violence across development. Development and Psychopathology, 22(1), 1-22. Web.

Milaniak, I., & Widom, C. S. (2015). Does child abuse and neglect increase risk for perpetration of violence inside and outside the home? Psychology of Violence, 5(3), 246-255. Web.

Smith, C. A., Ireland, T. O., Thornberry, T. P., & Elwyn, L. (2008). Childhood maltreatment and antisocial behavior: Comparison of self-reported and substantiated maltreatment. The American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 78(2), 173–186. Web.

Temple, J. R., Shorey, R. C., Tortolero, S. R., Wolfe, D. A., & Stuart, G. L. (2013). Importance of gender and attitudes about violence in the relationship between exposure to interparental violence and the perpetration of teen dating violence. Child Abuse & Neglect, 37(5), 343–352. Web.

Tsavoussis, A., Stawicki, S., Stoicea, N., & Papadimos, T. J. (2014). Child-witnessed domestic violence and its adverse effects on brain development: A call for societal self-examination and awareness. Frontiers in Public Health, 2(178), 1-5. Web.

Wright, K. A., Turanovic, J. J., O’Neal, E. N., Morse, S. J., & Booth, E. T. (2019). The cycle of violence revisited: Childhood victimization, resilience, and future violence. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 34(6), 1261-1286. Web.

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