Research points to the serious and long-lasting consequences for children exposed to physical violence. This happens when the violence is personally experienced or merely witnessed. (Sternberg et al., 1993) There is evidence that violence within the family is particularly traumatic to youth (Osofsky et al., 1993; Jaffe, Wolfe, Wilson & Zak, 1986), and the literature on witnessing a parent’s victimization or death clearly indicates that this is one of the most life altering events that a child can experience. (Eth & Pynoos, 1994; Pynoos & Eth, 1985; Kaplan et al., 1994; Terr, 1991; Malmquist, 1986)
Witnessing violence between parents is highly stressful, and is a risk factor for a variety of psychosocial problems. Children who witness domestic violence show a greater frequency of both internalizing and externalizing behavior problems. (Bell, 1995; Bell & Jenkins, 1991; Margolin, 1995; American Bar Association, 1994) They are prone to depression, anxiety, physical and mental health problems, drinking and drug use, violence toward peers, future marital conflict and violence, physical abuse of children and assaults, and other crimes outside the family when a child grows up. (Jaffe & Sudermann, 1995; Straus, 1992; Wolfe, Wekerle, Reitzel & Gough, 1995) Children exposed to violence in the home are also at disproportionate risk for injury, eating disorders, and self-harm, even if they themselves are not the targets of physical aggression. (WHO, 2002) They are more likely to attempt suicide, run away from home, engage in teen prostitution, and commit crimes of sexual assault. (Wolfe, Wekerle, Reitzel & Gough, 1995)
Exposure to domestic conflict and violence can change how children learn to relate to others, and how they develop their own self-concepts and self-control. (Wolfe & Korsch, 1994) Overall functioning, attitudes, social competence, and school performance are often negatively affected. (Jaffe, Wolfe, Wilson & Zak, 1986) In general, exposure to violence tends to lead to more high-risk behaviors in adolescence. (Bell, 1995)
It’s clear that domestic violence is among the top of the list when it comes to the most serious threats to child wellbeing. (Barnett, Miller-Penn & Penin, 1997) Violence is especially damaging for young children when it involves assaults between two people to whom they are emotionally attached (Groves et al., 1993; Zuckerman et al., 1995; Pynoos & Eth, 1986), and the strongest negative reactions occur when violence involves a parent or caregiver. (Osofsky, 1995)
How domestic violence affects kids
Witnessing violence within the home or against a caregiver damages children through a number of ways:
It’s a traumatizing experience that induces anxiety, terror, and helplessness.
It creates a great deal of ongoing stress by making a child’s home environment an unpredictable and threatening place.
It creates a poor emotional climate filled with negative feelings that children then absorb.
Violence threatens a child’s attachment to their caregivers.
It diminishes parenting skills and responsiveness. In addition, parents who are involved in violent relationships with their partners are more likely to abuse their children. (Strauss & Gelles, 1988)
It confuses the child and creates psychological turmoil, since it often involves one looked-up-to individual attacking another. Moreover, since the abuser seldom apologizes for what occurs (at least not in front of the children) and victims often pretend it didn’t happen or minimize the incident, children rarely receive any type of explanation or discussion about what occurred. Their fear is left uncomforted and they are stuck trying to figure things out on their own.
Domestic violence and anger problems in children
Seeing a loved one abused not only makes a child frightened and upset, it also makes them angry. Anger is a normal response to threatening situations, but children have little they can do with their anger. They are unable to vent it towards the abusive adult, so they either bottle it up inside or take their rage out against peers. Neither path leads to a healthy resolution for anger.
A study of 2,245 children and teens found that recent exposure to violence in the home was a strong predictor of violent behavior in children. (Singer et al., 1998) Joy Osofsky (1995, p. 4) writes that “For adolescents, particularly those who have experienced violence exposure throughout their lives, high levels of aggression and acting out are common, accompanied by anxiety, behavior problems, school problems, truancy, and revenge seeking” and that while some can overcome this personal history, many “suffer considerable scars.” They may give up hope or become deadened emotionally.
The physical toll of exposure to violence
As discussed in an earlier chapter, chronic stress can erode the telomeres in cells and lead to a host of other physical symptoms. Family violence is one of those issues that typically causes chronic stress or even resets a child’s stress response system at a more hyper-aroused level. Which is why teens exposed to violence in the home show signs of compromised physical health at age 30, along with problems like major depression, substance abuse, and antisocial behavior. (Jayson, 3-11-2009)
Violence exposure & brain development
Exposure to violence and trauma-related distress is associated with substantial detriments in IQ , a chemical that inhibits neural growth and can even cause existing brain cells to die in high enough levels, which is what leads to cognitive impairments. Put quite bluntly, extended exposure to violence causes substantial brain damage in children. (Perry, 1997, p. 3)in young children. (Delaney-Black, 2002) Those exposed to high levels of domestic violence have IQ’s that are, on average, 8 points lower than those of unexposed children. (Koenen et al., 2003) The speculation about why this occurs is that the increased chronic stress floods the brain with Cortisol
Other effects of domestic violence
Children who witness family violence tend to experience all the same things as children in high-conflict homes, and then some. So you can pretty much take all the consequences of family conflict discussed in the last chapter and apply them here.