Domestic violence can have a lasting impact on children, but there are options to promote healing.
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Survivors of trauma are often depicted as the ones who directly endured a stressful situation. However, when there are others present who have to witness and navigate the tenuous situation, it has an effect.
Children of parents or guardians who are abusive are at risk of these situations. This is especially the case when it comes to domestic violence, where abuse occurs between people who live together, including
Even if the violence is not directly pointed at a child, in addition to witnessing the effect of the situation on the other partner — maybe their other parent or a sibling — there are emotional repercussions that have the potential to last for years.
All children, regardless of age, are susceptible to the negative effects of domestic violence, according to Cornelia Gibson, LMFT, EdD in counseling psychology, and clinical director of Agape Counseling Center and Network in California.
“The child’s age, as well as the length of time of the exposure, could change the effects. But no child’s mental health is fully protected while witnessing one incident of domestic violence [or] prolonged experiences,” Gibson says.
Children learn a lot from the environments they grew up in, and parents or guardians start that process immediately, whether they realize it or not. Much of what children learn about the world around them and how to interact with each other is learned perspectives and traits.
Because of this, seeing abuse patterns — whether it be physical, emotional, or otherwise — can lead to normalizing unhealthy behavior within relationships.
Howard Pratt, DO, psychiatrist and behavioral health medical director at Community Health of Florida, says, “The long-term effects, meanwhile, are even worse, because we learn at an early age what defines a relationship.”
“They can come to believe that if there is no violence, shouting, or unhealthy communication, then it’s not a normal relationship since the model they have internalized is for an abusive relationship.”
Without addressing the trauma that’s been endured, this can mean that a child expects abuse within relationships and may potentially become abusive themselves.
It’s good to keep in mind that not everyone who was abused will end up being violent or aggressive themselves, but there is a good chance healthy communication and coping weren’t developed adequately, which can pose an issue for relationships.
Taking responsibility for the violence they’ve seen or one of their parents being hurt is a way that a child may deal with seeing abuse in the home. This may come from a need to make sense of what they’re feeling.
It could be scary to witness, hear, or deal with the repercussions of an abusive situation and want to help but not know how — all potentially leading to feelings of helplessness.
It’s important to chat with your kids and let them know that abuse isn’t anyone else’s fault or responsibility outside of the person who’s causing it. No one else can be blamed for another person’s actions.
Children who witness domestic violence may be more likely to experience negative emotions such as fear, hopelessness, and anger.
Living in a home with domestic abuse as a child is one of the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) score factors. Those with high ACE scores are more likely to have depression and anxiety, alongside:
- sleeping problems
- substance use
- chronic illness or pain
Plus, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network notes that children who witness intimate partner violence may experience various short- and long-term effects, including:
- different forms of anxiety like separation anxiety or generalized anxiety
- sleep difficulties and nightmares
- difficulty concentrating
- physical, behavioral, and emotional conditions in adolescence and adulthood
Gibson speaks to the potential of a child developing negative coping skills as a direct result of living in a household of abuse.
This may look like searching for an escape or an outlet, which may lead to being more susceptible to:
- peer pressure
- drug misuse
- unsafe sexual behavior
“Children could have a hard time relating to other children and could be more susceptible to bullying behaviors, either as the target of those behaviors or as the initiator of bullying behavior,” Gibson says.
It may also look like facing issues with hyperindependence, being hypervigilant, or being distant. Sometimes, these challenges may make it difficult to create and maintain relationships. It may also lead to difficulties with the legal system.
Psych Central knows that intimate partner violence, especially when it involves children, is complicated, and often connected to other forms of abuse or uneven power dynamics, such as emotional or financial.
The below suggestions are not a substitute for long-term support in the form of clinicians or legal support systems for you and your family, nor is there any blame to be put on the survivor of violence in this situation.
- Ensure your child knows how to call 911 if there’s an acute emergency.
- Have a list of names, phone numbers, and addresses for trusted friends, neighbors, or family that they can reach out to during an emergency.
- Identify hiding places and exits.
- Agree upon a safe word or gesture to enact when it’s time for them to hide or call someone for help.
If you’re experiencing domestic violence, ensuring you and your kids’ physical safety is an important first step, followed by connecting with mental health professionals for you and your kids.
Even if your children were not physically harmed, witnessing and being in a house fraught with tension and abuse is traumatic and can have lasting effects.
Because a common tactic of abuse is to isolate, it makes sense if you’re experiencing violence and feeling lonely at times. Or, maybe you feel like you don’t have any options.
Being overwhelmed is understandable, but remember that you aren’t alone in this situation. Reading this piece for suggestions is a great first step.
Try to remember that the safety — physical, mental, and emotional — of you and your children are the top priority, and the goal is for you all to remain safe for as long as possible. Whether you’re the parent or the child, both during and after navigating a situation fraught with abuse, try to remember to make healing a priority.
If you’re aiming to heal from previous traumas as the child within a house of domestic violence, there are options if you want to connect with a mental health professional or simply connect with others who can relate to your experience.
Depending on your location, there may be shelters specific to folks with children who are in need of support, and organizations like The Domestic Violence Hotline are available for immediate assistance and to help you connect to someone local.