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When Children Witness Violence

They’re more likely to abuse or be abused as adults, unless adults step in and stop the cycle

  • November 05, 2014
  • By domesticshelters.org
When Children Witness Violence

Consider this: Most domestic abuse that occurs in a home where children are present is witnessed by those children. In fact, one study found that 90 percent of children in violent homes have seen one parent physically abusing the other. 

Some 15.5 million children in the U.S. live in families in which domestic violence occurred at least once in the previous year. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, witnessing violence between parents is the most influential risk factor for children to carry violent behavior from one generation to the next. Boys, especially, who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse a partner as an adult.

Kids Know What's Happening

"There is emotional trauma when a child has been subjected to that type of experience,” says Juanito Vargas, associate vice president of Safe Horizon, a New York domestic violence nonprofit and the largest victims’ services agency in the U.S., speaking about kids in violent households. 

“It’s due to no fault of the survivor, but [the violence] does emotionally and physically affect children. It puts them in places of complete chaos. Later on in life, there is a propensity for this child to be violent because of this,” says Vargas.

The Childhood Domestic Violence Association, a nonprofit aimed at helping those who live with domestic violence as children, reports that the vast majority of parents currently with a violent partner believe their children aren't aware of the violence that's occurring. But when asked, not shockingly, roughly 90 percent of children were actually well aware.

The Effects of Living With Violence

Children respond to domestic violence in various ways and the effects will vary by age, but some signs to watch for that indicate trauma has occurred or is occurring include: 

  • Aggression
  • Behavior problems
  • Trouble interacting with peers
  • Being emotionally withdrawn or detached
  • Separation anxiety
  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Low self-esteem 
  • Difficulty concentrating

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), the most important step to take when children are exposed to domestic violence is to remove them from the situation and place them where they feel safe, as well as making sure they see their abused parent or caregiver is safe. Also, helping them plan strategies for staying safe gives them a sense of control and helps them feel less vulnerable.

Next, counseling is recommended. Based on their age, this could include group counseling or support groups, individual counseling and counseling in tandem with the nonoffending parent. Says NTCSN, “For most children, a strong relationship with a parent is a key factor in helping a child heal from the effects of domestic violence.”

Helping to end the cycle of violence is also vitally important. Read, "3 Steps to Break the Cycle of Domestic Violence in Kids' Lives."