Impacts of Domestic Violence on Children


It is “normal” for a child of domestic violence to manifest a multitude of symptoms. Children can also be injured directly or accidentally, because they are “in the line of fire.”

Effects on children:

Imitation: Children often imitate behaviors they witness, whether it’s helping around the house or learning to deal with problems through violence. Generational transfer of violent behavior and emotional dependency on others is common; thus, children learn that violence is an acceptable behavior and an integral part of intimate relationships.

Children may become abusive adults, or accept domination and control as a normal part of intimate relationships. Children raised in an abusive environment may be abused as adults.

Targets of Violence: Children are often abused in order for the abuser to hurt, punish, or gain revenge upon his or her spouse. The abuser may feel “ganged up” on by family members who speak out against the violence. Or, the child gets caught in the cross-fire and is unintentionally injured as a result of parental conflict. Children may also be directly abused by adult victims as they release their stress on the children or attempt to keep the children “in line” in order to avoid irritating the abuser.

Neglect: A victim living with the stress of domestic violence is seldom able to fully attend to the needs of the children. Infants may not become attached to primary care- givers and may lack trust; young children’s growth may be stunted due to lack of stimulation; and children of all ages may have eating and sleeping disorders. Infants and children who are neglected by their care-givers are prone to illness and have tremendous difficulties in cognitive and emotional development, and in overall well-being.

Emotional Disorders: Low self-esteem and low confidence often result when children are unable to handle life situations. Phobias, depression, stress disorders, stuttering, insomnia, impaired concentration, difficulty in school, psychosomatic illnesses, etc., can be the result of the chaotic/abusive home environment and often go unattended to because the parent(s) is/are overwhelmed by their own needs and survival.

Self-Blame: Arguments about child-rearing or a over a child’s behavior often precipitate violent episodes between parents. The child may see herself as responsible for the violence, and may compensate through suicidal thoughts, overly-pleasing behavior, or extreme acting-out behavior. The children literally blame themselves for the violence in their homes. They feel “it is all my fault, and if I weren’t here, none of this would be happening.”

Low Self-esteem: Children raised in violent home settings usually have poor definitions of self and values; inconsistent responses from the parents to the child’s behavior can undermine a child’s self-esteem even more. Psychological and emotional abuse also defeats self-esteem and fosters feelings of confusion, helplessness, and powerlessness.

Compensation: Children assume adult responsibilities which can endanger the child physically as well as delay the child’s physical and emotional development. The child goes from child to adult roles without passing through adolescent stages, for example, by caring for the victim and/or younger siblings, or by having to care for themselves. Children raised in violent homes often care for younger siblings in the absences of the primary caregiver(s), or take over the “adult” roles, such as cooking meals, cleaning the house, ensuring that children get up for school, etc.

Refereeing: Children are in danger of being involved in the assault, emotionally and physically. Additionally, emotional danger is possible because the referee is expected to be impartial while the child may be experiencing divided loyalties. If a child assumes the role of the referee, he or she may withdraw with from both parties.

Divided Loyalties: The child often attempts to protect and defend all family members, and is being used by both adults against one another. Children feel love for both parents and are confused about why two people they love are hurting. Feelings of shame and guilt usually result; therefore, the child may isolate himself from peers and other family members. Children experiencing these feelings are often locked into silence by the abuse.

Lack of Trust: Children with erratic or violent parents never know whether they will be emotionally and/or physically neglected or whether they will receive an outpouring of affection as the abuser attempts to reconcile the abusive behavior. In such a chaotic environment, children do not know whom to trust or when to trust.

Mixed Feelings: When a child lives in a chaotic environment, feelings of guilt, fear, helplessness, bottled rage, and embarrassment usually result.

Fear of Abandonment: Often during or after an attack, children are sent to stay with family, friends, or neighbors. Siblings may be separated or authorities may intervene. Parents are fearful that OCS may come to take their children into protective custody, or that the abusive spouse may kidnap the children or use them as leverage or as bargaining chips against the other spouse. All of these situations can result in separation anxiety for the children.

Runaways: Children may run away to seek independence and freedom from violence, rage, and arguments at home. Children learn that running from their problems is an appropriate means of dealing with crisis instead of communicating with others to get problems solved.

Poor School Performance: Problems at home (specifically, violence) may cause a lack of attentiveness, lack of adequate rest, and poor nutritional habits in children. Low self-esteem and inability to complete assignments are roots of poor school performance. Children raised in homes where violence of any kind is a frequent occurrence often have tremendous difficulty academically. Some children may compensate for the violent environment by overachieving or by putting all their concentrations into one activity, such as academics or sports.

Substance Abuse: Children with inappropriate or inadequate coping mechanisms along with poor self-esteem will often give in to peer pressure and become involved with drug and alcohol abuse. Some children model their parents’ behavior and cope with life stress through smoking, and drugs and/or alcohol use and abuse.

Suicide: Children who experience violence in their homes may have thoughts of suicide as a means of escaping. Self-mutilation and obsession with death are common responses.

SOURCE: AWAIC – Abused Women’s Aid In Crisis, Anchorage, AK