Effects on Children Witnessing Domestic Violence
It is impossible to prevent children witnessing domestic violence.
They may see or hear the abusive episode, be used
or even involved in the violence (eg the child may be in his
mother's arms when she is hit), will experience the aftermath,
and sense the tension in the build-up to the abuse. Even when
the parents believe the children were unaware of what was happening,
the children can often give detailed accounts of the events.
"I used to sit in my room and hear them fighting
then I'd hear my mum scream and I'd know he'd have hit her."
Sometimes the children will be drawn in to the domestic violence
themselves, either in trying to protect a younger sibling or in trying
to protect the parent who is being physically assaulted:
"Finally when I was 8 years old my mum got rid of my dad,
but it didn't stop him from causing trouble. He used to come round
and corner my mum in the kitchen yelling abuse at her. By this
time my little brother was born and I would run upstairs with
him trying to tell him it'd be okay while my oldest brother would
try and pull my dad off my mum." (Jay's
A common feeling amonst parents is that it is somehow better to stay
together for the sake of the children, but as Jay makes clear, for
children witnessing domestic violence, they would often prefer separation
and an end to the 'trouble'.
As well as the physical violence often found in abusive relationships,
the children will almost certainly be subjected to frequent emotional
abuse of the mother in the form of name-calling, accusations and
threats made by the abuser in their presence. As mentioned above,
where the wife/partner is being abused, the children are also likely
to be abused themselves. This is most true of emotional abuse, where
the children's own self-esteem is battered by being shouted at, told
they are stupid or are not trying hard enough, or given mixed messages
by being favoured one moment and put-down the next. Quite apart from
possible physical involvement or direct abuse, these emotionally damaging
actions have a detremental and often long-lasting effect on the children.
"People throw around statistics saying that up to 70 or
80% of children of batterers are also abused. That statistic is
wrong. EVERY child who witnesses abuse is a victim of abuse. As
an abused child, and then as an adult trying to recover, I was
far more affected by witnessing the abuse of my mother than I
was by the abuse directed toward me." (Carla's
"One of my parents argues with the other and physically
and emotionally abuses them. That parent then often, though not
always, turns on us children, and abuses us too. Apart from this
abuse we do *love* the parent, but we do not *like* them. We do
not know where to go, or what would happen if we reported it,
so we haven't, though this has been going on for as long as I
can remember and for the whole of their marriage." (17 year-old
The Effect of Witnessing Abuse
Many children who witness the abuse of their mothers demonstrate
significant behavioural and/or emotional problems including psychosomatic
disorders, stuttering, anxiety and fears, sleep disruption, excessive
crying and problems at school.
How your child or children will be affected depends on the individual
child, their age and gender, how much they witness and whether or
not they are personally involved in the abuse, their personality and
support available to them. Although research in this field is still
largely lacking, it is generally agreed that Domestic Violence or
Abuse is highly relevant to the child's present and future well-being,
and that there is a significant overlap with child abuse.
In brief,children may experience any of the following problems:
- Emotional Problems: crying, anxiety and
sadness, confusion, anger (which can be directed toward either parent
or other children, etc), depression, suicidal behaviour, nightmares,
fears and phobias. In younger children and babies eating and sleeping
disorders are common. Children can also suffer from PTSD (Post-Traumatic
Stress Disorder). See PTSD in Children
for further information.
- Behavioural Problems: aggression, becoming
troublesome at home or at school, withdrawing into or isolating
themselves, regressive behaviour (such as baby-talk, wanting bottles
or dummies, etc), lower academic achievements.
- Physical Problems: bed-wetting, nervous
ticks, headaches or stomach aches, nausea or vomiting, eating disorders,
Older children will often hold themselves responsible for the abuse,
especially where exteme violence has been an issue. Children living
in an abusive environment may also condone violence or the threat
of violence to resolve conflict in relationships.
It has to be remembered that even in situations where the child
is either not targeted directly with abuse or is 'only' witnessing
abuse, it can lead to very serious psychological trauma with possible
long-term effects, affecting not only the child's well-being during
or shortly after the abuse, but affecting the child's ability to build
and maintain healthy relationships in his/her adult life.
"I'm now 13 years old and decided to find more
about domestic abuse because it has not been long since I started
to realise the horror I faced when I was young. Has it affected
me? In ways yes. Last year I began self harming to get rid of the
emotional pain I was going through. I felt I had no one to talk
to. With help from my friends I am getting better but its a long
road." (J's Story)
Children witnessing domestic violence can also result in a very painful
break in relationship with the non-abusing parent.
Quite often women report that their children have chosen to side with
their abusive father against them, further emotionally or even physically
abusing their mother, and even choosing to live with their abusive
father just when the mother has managed to leave the abusive relationship.
It would also seem that absusive husbands are often in a better position
to gain residence of the children.
The children cannot be blamed for making this choice - they have
had years of witnessing the interacton between their parents and have
learned that the father is the stronger person, the mother the weaker
one (or so it appears from their perspective). For them, and their
survival, it would seem most sensible to throw their lot in with the
stronger parent (and at the same time maybe be able to avoid their
anger and any abuse coming their way). While this is understandable,
it is immensely painful for the mother.
Finally of course, for children witnessing domestic violence, it
is only too common for the children themselves to be either abused
or to be drawn into and used to further abuse the mother:
"What’s more, he was now directly involving the baby in
the abuse now. He would pick up the poor thing and shout at him, ‘look
at your stupid mother, she’s a whore, she’s no good, we’ll
get rid of her.’ The baby would scream till he was red in the
face but dad felt no sympathy whatsoever. He got some kind of a sick
thrill from controlling two people instead of one. At Christmas time,
he threw a fit and smashed our Christmas tree and all our presents.
That was my baby’s first Christmas." (Belinda)
We will be looking at the link between Domestic Violence and Child
Abuse later on.
Return from Children
Witnessing Domestic Violence to Domestic Violence and Children