Families and Domestic Violence

Module Sections:

Effects of Domestic Violence on Children

Domestic violence affects all of those involved and the youngest of children are no exception. Existing research has demonstrated clear associations between exposure to violence and emotional and behavioral problems in infants and toddlers. Infants and toddlers who witness violence in their homes or in their communities show excessive irritability, immature behavior, sleep disturbances, emotional distress, fears of being alone, and regression in toileting and language.

Exposure to trauma, especially violence in the family, interferes with a child's normal development of trust and later exploratory behaviors, therefore hampering their development of autonomy. Osofsky, Cohen, and Drell (1995) have noted the presence of symptoms in these young children are very similar to post- traumatic stress disorder in adults, including repeated reexperiencing of the traumatic event, avoidance, numbing of responsiveness, and increased arousal. Sometimes the experience can have long-lasting emotional, behavioral, cognitive, spiritual, and physical effects.

School-age children exposed to violence are more likely to show increases in sleep disturbances and are less likely to explore, play freely or to show motivation to master their environment. They often have difficulty paying attention and concentrating because they are distracted by intrusive thoughts. In addition, school-age children are likely to understand more about the intentionality of the violence and worry about what they could have done to prevent or stop it.

Studies conducted by the National Research Council (1993) as well as Cicchetti and Toth (1997) show that as children get older, those who have been abused and neglected are more likely to perform poorly in school, to commit crimes, and to experience emotional, sexual, and alcohol/substance abuse related problems. Also, adolescents exposed to violence, particularly those exposed to chronic community violence throughout their lives, tend to show high levels of aggression and acting out, accompanied by anxiety, behavioral problems, school problems, truancy, and revenge seeking. (Osofsky, 2006).

Other research (Margolin & Gordis, 2004), on the other hand, shows that children's responses to witnessing adult domestic violence vary considerably depending on the child's age and gender, the level of violence in the home, the degree of the child's exposure, whether or not the child is abused, and the presence of other risks and protective factors. Some children have such resilience that they are able to cope with the chaos of a violent home in constructive ways. While children are affected by violence in their lives, not all experience long-term negative consequences.

Audio Companion: Families and Domestic Violence