In the discussion about domestic violence, one fact is frequently overlooked: Any children who are around to witness it are also traumatized by the experience. They are victims by proxy, and the damage they sustain frequently exceeds that of any physical, sexual, or verbal child abuse.
Witnessing violence between or against family members is an extremely disturbing event for any child. In terms of the stress and terror it causes, its psychological imprint is not any different than if they were beaten and abused themselves, which is why children who witness violence show a reaction very similar to that of children who suffer abuse. (Fantuzzo, DePaola, Lambert & Martino, 1991; Hughes, 1988; Hurley & Jaffe, 1990; Kashani, Daniel, Kandoy & Holcomb, 1992) In fact, children who witness violence against a loved one have been found to suffer PTSD symptoms at higher rates than those children are victimized directly. This is likely because they feel even more helpless as a bystander than victim, and because the person attacked is usually the one they turn to for comfort, so when that person is affected, it slows the recovery process.
As researcher Murray A. Strauss says, “It seems reasonable to conclude that being a witness to violence between parents puts a child at risk for a number of serious mental health and other problems, and that this applies to children of all socioeconomic levels and regardless of whether a child has also been attacked by the parents.” (Strauss, 1992) Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee (2000, pp. 89-90) add that, “We have only recently begun to understand the awful, lasting influence of seeing one parent hit or hurt by the other, the suffering that it causes to the child and how detrimental it is to mental health. Many judges who deal with such families do not understand that merely witnessing violence is harmful to children; the images are forever etched into their brains. Even a single episode of violence is long remembered in detail. In fact, there is accumulating scientific evidence that witnessing violence or being abused physically or verbally literally alters brain development, resulting in a hyperactive emotional system.”
On top of this, parents who physically attack each other are also more likely to har their children. (Ross, 1996; Straus, Gelles & Steinmetz, 1980) Children living in homes where domestic violence occurs are physically abused and neglected at a rate 15-times higher than the national average. (Massachusetts Coalition, 1995) Several studies have found that in 60%-75% of families where a woman is battered, the children are also battered. (Bowker, 1988; McKibben, DeVos & Newberger, 1989; Straus, Gelles & Steinmetz, 1980) And in its fifth report in 1995, the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse suggests that domestic violence may be the single greatest precursor to child abuse and neglect deaths in the United states. Any way you look at it, children living in violent homes face serious threats to their welfare.