Aside from the damage it causes children, the other thing that makes family violence so concerning is its sheer prevalence. In the United States alone, between 4 and 5 million cases of domestic violence are reported each year. However, this likely grossly underestimates actual prevalence, as batterers are seldom reported for a variety of reasons, ranging from religious convictions to economic realities or fear of the perpetrator. (Peled et al., 2000; Dutton & Gordon, 1996) According to a recent CDC report a quarter of American women suffer from domestic violence at some point in their lives. About 1,200 women are killed and 2 million more injured each year in the United states due to intimate partner violence. (Mickenberg, 2008)

How often do children witness domestic violence?

Each year more than 10 million American children witness a physical assault between their parents. In two-thirds of these cases, this is repeated violence as part of a recurring pattern of domestic abuse, and the overall childhood prevalence of witnessing violence is at least triple these annual rates. (Strauss, 1992)

Overall, Steinman (1989) found that children are present during approximately half of all battering incidents. (In the other half, the couples either had no children or the kids were not around at the time.) Through the use of child interviews, Goodman & Rosenberg (1987) showed that when children are present in the home, they either witness or are aware of nearly all such violent episodes. Other studies have also found that in homes where domestic violence occurs, children are well aware of virtually every incident. Children have been known to peek into the room, sneak out of bed, or hide under tables when parents are fighting, and thus they witness incidents of violence that their parents had assumed they never knew about.

Children in violent families are often able to give detailed accounts of violence that their parents assume went unnoticed. (Jaffe et al., 1990; Rosenberg, 1987) Jay Osofsky (1995) writes that “Parents tend to underestimate the extent to which their children have been witness to domestic violence-which may not be surprising. Children, out of fear, may try to be unseen while observing; and parents, wishing that their children were not exposed, may be reluctant to acknowledge it.” (p. 7)

McAlister-Groves and Zuckerman (1997, pp. 186-871 speak to this effect, noting that “In the child Witness to Violence Project it is not uncommon to hear mothers’ minimization of violent events or to hear from mothers that their children did not see or hear a violent incident. However, separate interviews with children reveal that they see and hear more than their parents think.”

Whether a child is present in the room or merely nearby makes little difference. The sounds and emotional aftermath that accompany domestic violence are traumatizing enough. In fact, a child’s imagination about what is going on may be just as terrifying as the visual images of actually seeing it.