Domestic violence or abuse is typically characterized by a man abusing a woman during repeated occasions, although it is not exclusive to this and can occur where the woman is the perpetrator of the abuse or within same-sex relationships. If the couple are parents or step-parents to children who live in the same home as them, the psychological harm and trauma that is caused to their children can be very severe. Even when the children themselves are not physically hurt or abused, a study conducted in 1992 found that in 90% of domestic abuse cases where children are present, they are either in the same room or in the same house, which means that they are able to see or hear it happening. This can have an equally damaging effect on the child as would happen if they were to be directly abused.
Experts now believe that being made to witness domestic violence between parents is emotionally abusive for children. However, the research into the effects of witnessing domestic violence on children is very recent. As a result, the damage that has been done to children and young people through witnessing domestic violence has largely gone undetected over time, which is why these children are often referred to as the unacknowledged or hidden victims of domestic abuse.
How Witnessing Domestic Abuse Impacts Children:
Children who grow up regularly witnessing domestic violence in the home will often feel afraid, terrified and powerless. They grow up realizing that the people who are meant to be strong and proactive of them are actually very vulnerable and not able to protect themselves, which leads to the realization that they will not be able to protect their children either. In addition, it can be highly confusing and traumatic as a child to realize that those who are meant to protect them are capable of violent action against a person that they are supposed to love and care for, which can lead to a child feeling extremely vulnerable, insecure and unsafe. Even if a child is not being physically hurt or abused directly, witnessing it occurring within their own family is a constant reminder that the risk is always there. As a result, social workers and other child protection professionals will often view witnessing domestic abuse in the household as just as serious as if the child was being abused themselves.
Witnessing Abuse Becoming Direct Abuse:
Even worse, in many cases where domestic violence occurs in the household, it is possible for children to become directly involved in the situation. For example, some children may try to protect one parent from the other, or the abusive partner might have the children join in with the violence against the victim, which can be highly traumatizing for children who may often have no choice but to go along in fear of the abuse against their parent getting worse or even having the abuse turned on themselves. In addition, studies have found that around 70% of children who live in households where the father is physically abusive towards the mother will be physically abused by the father themselves.
Emotional or Covert Incest:
Emotional or covert incest is a type of abuse that does not involve physical incest, but rather a dynamic that is in place when one parent seeks the type of emotional support from their child that they should be seeking through an adult relationship. The risk of this happening is often much higher in families where there is domestic violence involved in the parent’s relationship since the emotional side of that relationship is often fractured or non-existent, leading the parent to seek that connection elsewhere.
Covert incest occurs when a parent turns to their child for emotional support or as a confidant. In cases of domestic abuse where the abuser is isolating the victim from support outside of the home, the risk of this occurring can be even higher since the parent might have nobody else but their child to talk to. Children who are put in this position may often feel privileged or special since their parent is sharing adult information with them or getting support from them, which can help them feel closer to the parent and even give a child who is witnessing domestic violence a sense of usefulness and power in their situation. However, this will usually lead to the child’s needs being ignored in favor of the parent’s, which can lead to debilitating long-term developmental consequences.
The Long-Term Impact of Witnessing Domestic Violence:
Like any trauma that is experienced in childhood, witnessing domestic violence in the home can have a long-term devastating effect on a child well into adulthood. Children who experience domestic violence in the home may grow up downplaying these events in order to deal with them, which can often put them at a higher risk of ending up in abusive relationships themselves as an adult. Children will learn from their main caregivers and the adults around them, and when these adults are behaving in an abusive way, this will be the ‘blueprint’ that they are provided with for adult life. In addition to this, the likelihood that somebody who goes on to be an abuser themselves as an adult is often higher in children who witnessed domestic abuse as a child. While there is no excuse for any type of abuse, this is often a very sad situation where children grow up believing that this is the only way for them to protect themselves from further suffering.
Witnessing domestic violence in the home can also have a long-term mental health impact on a child. Children who witness domestic violence as they are growing up are at a higher risk of developing conditions such as complex post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and emotionally unstable personality disorder. The mental health impact of this type of childhood can often lead to serious difficulties in many aspects of their adult lives including finances, personal relationships, romantic relationships, work and more.
In addition to this, a child that has also experienced covert incest as a result of domestic violence between their parents may be stunted developmentally even further. As a result of the inappropriate closeness of the relationship between the parent and child, the child may grow up learning to always put other’s needs above their own, ignoring their own needs, and becoming a people-pleaser. Throughout their childhood and adulthood, the child and then-adult might have an exaggerated sense of responsibility for their abused parent and feel that it is up to them to protect and care for their parent rather than the other way around. Again, this can cause issues with their personal life, romantic relationships, and even work depending on the severity of the case. Adults who have been conditioned as children to drop everything when their parent needs them and always put the needs of their parent first are unlikely to have many skills when it comes to setting boundaries and will often grow to feel resentful as a result.
Encouraging Resilience and Preventing the Negative Impact:
It is important to note that many children who witness domestic violence in the home do not go on to experience adverse behavioral, emotional and cognitive effects as a result. There are several factors that can have an impact on this including the amount of time that the child is in the home and witnessing violence, whether or not there is early intervention from other family members, social workers, teachers and other professionals and more. Some variables include the intellectual ability and age of the child at the time the violence occurs, female gender, higher socioeconomic status, and the social support that is available for the child. Children who are able to speak out about what they are experiencing at home sooner and get the help that is needed from outside sources are also less likely to experience the full extent of the negative impact both growing up and during adulthood.
In schools and medical settings, in particular, inquiries about family violence should be made if a child presents with emotional or behavioral problems. In the past, one of the main reasons why many of these children were overlooked was because little was known about the impact of witnessing or experiencing violence on a child behaviorally, and many children with behavioral problems were not treated accordingly. Since these symptoms can also be the result of other traumatic experiences, it’s important for professionals to consider other causes such as bullying in school, direct abuse to the child, sexual violence and community violence, along with other potential problems in the home such as depression or alcohol and/or drug abuse.
While not every child presenting with behavioral or emotional problems will have experienced trauma, it is important for professionals to ensure that this is ruled out before suggesting treatment.
Even if children are not direct victims of physical abuse in the home, studies have found that witnessing domestic abuse between parents can have an equally traumatic impact. In addition to this, children in homes where there is domestic abuse between parents can also be stunted developmentally through an inappropriately close relationship with a parent.