Children Witnessing Domestic Violence

When assessing if a child is at risk of harm living in a home with domestic violence (DV), one often limits their scope to whether or not the child is being physically abused. If the child is not directly physically harmed, outsiders, and even the parents, may assume the child is safe. Unfortunately, this is likely not true. Research shows that children who witness violence in the home are at a higher risk of problems related to behavioral, emotional, and cognitive functioning. Exposure to DV can even result in post-traumatic stress reactions in children, which impacts the child’s emotional and behavioral development. We must better understand how children experience witnessing DV in order to shift the way we think about these vulnerable victims.

Children experience violence against their parents in a number of ways. They may be silent observers, hearing the threats and seeing the violence. All too often, they become secondary victims if they are being held by the battered parent, forced to participate in the abuse, and emotionally manipulated to spy on or think badly about the abused parent. The emotional effects do not end with the fight, as children often go on to witness an injured parent in need of help, police intervention, or a move to a shelter.

The most research on the resulting effect of witnessing DV surrounds behavioral and emotional functioning. Studies show that children who witness DV who more aggressive and antisocial behavior, higher rates of anxiety and depression, and lower social capacity. Other lasting effects can include: resorting to violence as conflict resolution, low self-esteem, and use of violence, or tolerating violence, in adult intimate relationships.

It is clear that witnessing violence has the potential to leave a lasting impact on the child’s life, but with proper intervention, many of these effects can be mitigated. The research shows though, that we must change the way we think about “safety” in the home and realize that the detrimental effects of witnessing DV can produce lasting issues for our children. 

-Madeline Chapla

June 2, 2017

Edeleson, J.L. (1999). Children’s witnessing of adult domestic violence. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 14(8).

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