In a domestic violence situation children can be overlooked, especially if there’s no indication that they’ve been harmed directly. Of course, we can all understand that a child who is a target of domestic violence is going to be traumatized, but even as silent witnesses to violence against a parent or sibling, children are victims. It’s important to know this and to recognize that something might be wrong, because a child may not admit to their experiences out of confusion or fear.
Q: How do children react to domestic violence?
A: Because each incident is unique and multiple factors will influence children’s responses, not all children are equally affected by domestic violence. Some children don’t show obvious signs of stress or will develop their own coping strategies; others may have more severe post-traumatic stress reactions. A child’s age, experience, prior trauma history, and temperament will all affect his or her reaction.
Q: What are some short-term responses?
A: Children commonly respond to domestic violence the same as they do any other traumatic event. The child may:
- be jumpy, nervous, or easily startled,
- continue to see or relive images, sensations, or memories despite trying to put them out of mind,
- avoid situations, people, reminders, or may try not to talk or think about it, and/or
- feel numb, frozen, or shut down, cut off from normal life and other people.
Q: What about responses in the long term?
A: Research suggests that in the long term, youth who have been exposed to domestic violence—especially those who don’t receive therapeutic intervention—may be at increased risk of:
- Depression and anxiety
- Substance abuse
- Self-destructive or suicidal behaviors
- Impulsive acts
- Chronic health problems
- Low self-esteem
- Victimization by an intimate partner
Q: What are the factors that help aid in recovery?
A: Most people are resilient if given the proper help following traumatic events. Research has shown that the support of family and community are key to increasing children’s capacity to heal and in helping them recover and thrive. Crucial to a child’s recovery is the presence of a positive, caring, and protective adult in their life. Even just one compassionate caregiver, teacher, mentor, advocate etc. can make an important difference.
For further information about the impact of domestic violence on children and the family, these websites offer valuable resources: