The Impact of Domestic Violence on Children

Children exposed to the sights, sounds and stress of domestic violence are affected at every age and stage of development. They are at greater risk for emotional, behavioural, social and psychological problems. Children can be affected as if they are being directly abused themselves, and the effects can be long lasting.

Prenatal Stage

Domestic violence may begin, or increase, when women become pregnant. Pregnant women may feel more dependent on their partners for emotional and financial help during the pregnancy. They may also rely on their partners to fulfill their desire to be a family.

Abusive partners may use this dependency to gain further control in the relationship. They may be jealous about the pregnancy and may use violence to make sure their needs are being met. Physical violence may cause women to deliver early or have a miscarriage. Violence can also cause stress, which may affect women’s eating habits and coping behaviour (e.g., smoking, substance abuse). This can affect the baby’s weight or cause Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. As a result, children may be affected by domestic violence even before they are born.

Infancy (birth to 12 months)

Babies may become upset in a loud and chaotic home where there is no routine. This can cause babies to get sick or have eating and sleeping problems.

Parents may not be able to meet the needs of the baby because of the negative effects of domestic violence (e.g., physical injuries, emotional exhaustion, depression, substance abuse, money problems). The abusive parent may be jealous of the baby because of the time and attention the baby needs. To try to avoid further abuse, the parent may not always put the baby’s needs first. This affects the relationship between the parent and baby and the baby’s ability to grow in a healthy way.

Toddlers and Preschool Children (2 to 4 years)

Children at this age often find it hard to say what they are thinking or feeling. Instead, they may show their thoughts and feelings through their behaviour. Children may also act the same as their parents who are in an abusive relationship. This may include hitting others or keeping to themselves too much.

Children may also complain of physical problems (e.g., headaches, stomach pain) or have nightmares. Seeing abuse can also cause behavioural problems such as stuttering, hiding, and yelling or being highly active, demanding, whining or clinging. Feeling sad, anxious or scared can affect how well children eat and sleep, which can affect their emotional and physical growth.

School Age Children (5 to 12 years)

Children this age may be violent and have difficulty following rules or making friends. They may feel fear, anxiety, guilt, shame, depression and have low self-esteem or possibly post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which may include flashbacks about the violence. Children may have a hard time concentrating and focusing on tasks which may be an indication of an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Children learn to believe that violence is a normal part of relationships and a way to get what you want. To feel like they have some control in their lives, they may become bullies at school. These children may also be the ones who are bullied, because they often don’t have many friends.

Adolescents (13 to 18 years)

Young people are at risk of dating violence and getting into trouble with the law. They may also do poorly in school, drop out or run away. Young people may be depressed, suicidal, or develop PTSD . To deal with these feelings, they may try to hurt themselves, abuse substances such as drugs or alcohol, develop eating disorders or engage in risky sexual behavior.

Many teens act like parents by caring for the younger siblings and trying to predict or prevent future violence. After seeing abusive relationships throughout childhood, the cycle of abuse may continue as they find themselves in similar abusive relationships.

What can I do to help my child who has been exposed to domestic violence?

  • Make sure children know the abuse is not their fault and they are not responsible for the family problems. Let them talk openly about their feelings and teach them healthy ways to deal with these emotions.
  • Keep a routine with rules and discipline.
  • Praise your children for who they are and for good behavior. Exposure to domestic violence can have long-lasting affects on self-esteem.
  • Allow children to be kids and discourage them from acting like parents or dealing with adult problems.
  • Create age-appropriate safety plans with your children (e.g., call 911). Teach them not to become involved during a violent incident and discuss safe places to go (e.g., a neighbour’s home or the police station).
  • Ensure children go to school regularly where they can keep positive relationships. Talk to teachers and school staff and include them in the safety plan.
  • Get professional help if you have concerns about your child’s emotional well-being. Negative behavior and emotional issues may vary, depending on the child’s age and the extent of their exposure to domestic abuse.
  • End the child’s exposure to domestic violence. Children need to feel loved and protected in a safe environment. Talk to someone you trust and consider ending the relationship safely.