Hidden Hurt Domestic Abuse Information

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." (Jay's Story)

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 Story)

"I've been in the same room before when they were arguing and he kicked her in the stomach and she went flying into the computer desk and her mouth was bleeding. I've had to run in the middle of them before when he's gone to attack her." (Zena's Story)

A common feeling amonst parents is that it is somehow better to stay together for the sake of the children, but as Zena makes clear, for children witnessing domestic violence, they would often prefer separation and an end to the 'trouble'.

"I used to plead to her for years for her to leave him. But she wanted to stay for me, my brother and sister. Until it got to January 2012, when she decided enough was enough. She finally bought a house still in the area but away from him. We moved and she left him." (Zena's Story)

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 Story)

"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 girl)

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.

To really understand the effect of living in a home with an abuser, we recommend you read the authority on the subject by Lundy Bancroft. A MUST READ for anyone with kids whose partner is abusive!
To order in the US: The Batterer as Parent: Addressing the Impact of Domestic Violence on Family Dynamics
To order in the UK: The Batterer as Parent: Addressing the Impact of Domestic Violence on Family Dynamics

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, insomnia.

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." (Jay'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


In This Section:

Related Pages:

PTSD in Children
Belinda's Story
Emotional Abuse
Carla's Story
Jay's Story
Letter to the Past
Zena's Story

Recommended Reading:

Useful Books on Domestic Violence and Children available from the UK:

Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft

The Batterer as Parent: Addressing the Impact of Domestic Violence on Family Dynamics by Lundy Bancroft

When Dad Hurts Mom: Helping Your Children Heal the Wounds of Witnessing Abuse by Lundy Bancroft

Children's Perspectives on Domestic Violence

Useful Books on Domestic Violence and Children available in the US:

When Dad Hurts Mom: Helping Your Children Heal the Wounds of Witnessing Abuse by Lundy Bancroft

The Batterer as Parent: Addressing the Impact of Domestic Violence on Family Dynamics by Lundy Bancroft

Children Who See Too Much: Lessons from the Child Witness to Violence Project


Recommended Reading:

Freedoms Flowers by Pat Craven is a book about the effects of domestic abuse on children. It is composed of firsthand accounts from these children and their mothers. Some of the children write as adults from memory and some are male. The youngest contributor is eight years old. Their stories describe not only the abuse from the perpetrators but the dreadful collusion from the so called professionals who should have been protecting the victims instead of worsening the effects of the abuse.

This book should be read by every teacher, social worker, solicitor, judge and member of the medical profession who comes in to contact with any aspect of domestic abuse.

It should be read by every woman who is staying with an abuser for the sake of the children. Every woman whose children wet the bed, throw tantrums and attack other children should read this. Every woman whose children have been taken into care should also read this. The book also sends a strong message about hope.

The contributors describe how their lives were saved when they attended the Freedom Programme. They did not need therapy or threats to save their children from abuse. They only needed information to enable them to make informed decisions. Knowledge is power!

To buy in the UK:

And to buy in The US:

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UK National Domestic Violence Freephone number 0808 2000 247

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