Families and Domestic Violence

Module Sections:

Child Witnessing Domestic Violence

Child Witnessing Domestic Violence Wheel

Child Witnessing Domestic Violence Wheel

Children who witness violence are at high risk for being abused. There is a significant correlation between intimate partner abuse and abuse of children (Miller & Knudsen 2007; Walker, 2000). Reports by battered mothers show that 87% of children witness the abuse (Walker, 2000). While there are some inconsistencies in the evidence, the research shows that children living with domestic abuse have much higher rates of depression and anxiety (McCloskey , Figueredo, & Koss, 1995), trauma symptoms (Graham-Bermann & Levendosky, 1998), and behavioral and cognitive problems (O'Keefe, 1995) than children and young people not living with these issues. Rossman (2001) posits that,“"Exposure at any age can create disruptions that can interfere with the accomplishment of developmental tasks, and early exposure may create more severe disruptions by affecting the subsequent chain of developmental tasks” ( p. 58). Barbara Corry (1994) identifies some of the impacts of witnessing domestic violence as:

  • Battering causes damage and distress to the fetus
  • Battering adversely affects infants and toddlers
  • Older children see and hear the violence
  • Battering means emotional abandonment
  • A battering home means living in constant fear
  • Violence creates constant anxiety
  • A violent home means feeling powerless
  • Battering creates low self-esteem
  • Family violence results in behavioral problems
  • Battered children take on adult roles prematurely
  • Children of abuse learn how to abuse others
  • Battered children learn to harm themselves
  • Abused children learn extreme behavior
  • Children of violence do not learn boundaries

Evidence-based research (Margolin & Gordis, 2004)  show that some children fare well in spite of witnessing or living with domestic violence. Sometimes this is referred to as ‘resilience’. Issues such as age and severity may be intervening variables. For instance, longitudinal studies in the US suggest that for children under 8, witnessing abuse towards their primary care giver is deeply traumatic (Humphreys & Houghton, 2008). Psychological tests indicate children found this more disturbing than the effects of direct physical maltreatment (Humphreys & Houghton, 2008). Other research shows that problems for children can compound over time as they live with the multiple problems associated with the negative effects of domestic violence.

Laing (2001) draws attention to the incomplete state of our knowledge of protective contexts for children. Higher rates of distress shown across a range of clinical measures should not be conflated with the impression that all children show these elevated levels of emotional distress and behavioral disturbances. Thus, as highlighted by Magen (1999), ‘correlation is not causation’ (p. 130). Research (Wolfe, Zak, Wilson & Jaffe, 1986) shows that children will usually recover their competence and behavioral functioning once they are in a more safe and secure environment. With support, children have even proved to be effective social and political actors in securing resources for similarly affected children and young people (Houghton, 2006). With that being said, it is essential to provide the necessary support and resources to the family as well as the child(ren) to deal positively with the situation.

Audio Companion: Families and Domestic Violence