• Denisa Millette

The True Impact of Domestic Violence on Children

As a clinician, I often evaluate children with a variety of emotional and behavioral problems, typically assessing for a behavior disorder, attention disorder and/or a mood disorder. As a part of my interview with the parent as well as with the child, I always asked about the history of the child’s exposure to domestic violence.  And this is why.

Most people are aware that exposure to domestic violence is rather detrimental to children. Specifically, such exposure  often leads to significant behavioral problems in children, including verbal and physical aggression toward others. Children exposed to domestic violence are at greater risk for developing symptoms of anxiety and depression. These children are also more disobedient at home and at school and tend to have poor academic performance, as well as difficulty in relating to others. 

The following statistics are very concerning. According to research, in the past decade, domestic violence, or intimate partner violence has become recognized as a serious public health issue in the United States. Domestic violence affects 3 to 4 million individuals every year in this country alone. Millions more are affected due to the children and family who witness the abuse. Each year 3.3 million children witness domestic partner abuse and 50 to 70 percent of the perpetrators also abuse their children. Domestic violence is a leading cause of serious injury to women, killing as many as 4,000 women each year. Twenty-five percent of the murders in this country are related to domestic violence which represents the largest segment of unreported crime in the United States (1).

Research show that children who have been exposed to maltreatment and other adverse childhood experiences, such as domestic violence are at an increased risk for various negative adult health outcomes, including cancer, liver disease, substance abuse, and depression. Research analyses showed that exposure to adverse childhood experiences is strongly associated with externalizing and internalizing behaviors and likelihood of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder diagnosis in middle childhood. A study completed by Hunt TK, Slack KS, and Berger LM  provides evidence that children as young as 9 begin to show behavioral problems after exposure to early childhood adversities (2).

Exposure to both domestic violence and depression before age 3 years is associated with preschool-aged onset of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder; early exposure to parental depression is associated with being prescribed psychotropic medication. (3) Young children living with domestic violence are often also exposed to harsh parenting. Both forms of violence increase children’s risk for clinically significant disruptive behavior, which can place them on a developmental trajectory associated with serious psychological impairment later in life.

Although it is hypothesized that domestic violence behaviors may spillover into harsh parenting, and thereby influence risk for disruptive behavior, relatively little is known about these processes in families with young children.  According to research, mothers reporting a greater occurrence of psychologically aggressive domestic violence (e.g., yelling, name-calling) more often engage in psychological and physical aggression toward their children  Mothers reporting a greater occurrence of domestic violence in the form of physical assault more often engage in mild to more severe forms of physical punishment with potential harm to the child. Psychological and physical forms of domestic violence and harsh parenting all significantly correlate with maternal reports of child disruptive behavior. (4)

Domestic violence is one of the most serious forms of abuse inflicted on children. It poses a challenge for professional practices. The protection of the child cannot be separated from that of the parent suffering the abuse, and their safety cannot be assured without an adapted arrangement of the conditions of parental authority. (5) More specifically, maternal mental health as an important variable in mediating the relationship between domestic violence exposure and aggressive behavior in children. Thus, multi-component family interventions tailored toward helping the mother cope with her mental health issues while also addressing deficits in children‘s social behavior development proves to be the most efficient. (6)

If you are a victim of domestic violence, you may be suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, hopelessness, or dissociation, which may make it difficult for you to seek help. You may feel like you have lost control over the situation and attempt to regain balance by self-medicating with drugs or alcohol or engaging in self-harming behaviors.  However, please know that the effects of domestic violence on you or on your child can be overcome. The healing  starts with learning strong positive coping mechanisms to reclaim positive relationships with others and yourself.

Sources for this article:

  1. Kessmann JR, Domestic violence: identifying the deadly silence. Tex Dent J. 2000 Oct;117(10):42-7. PubMed:11857884

  2. Hunt TK, Slack KS, Berger LM, Adverse childhood experiences and behavioral problems in middle childhood. Child Abuse Negl. 2016 Nov 21. pii: S0145-2134(16)30256-3. PubMed: 27884508

  3. Bauer NS1, Gilbert AL, Carroll AE, Downs SM, Associations of early exposure to intimate partner violence and parental depression with subsequent mental health outcomes. JAMA Pediatr. 2013 Apr;167(4):341-7. 10.1001 PubMed: 23381234

  4. Grasso DJ, Henry D, Kestler J, Nieto R, Wakschlag LS, Briggs-Gowan MJ. Harsh Parenting As a Potential Mediator of the Association Between Intimate Partner Violence and Child Disruptive Behavior in Families With Young Children. J Interpers Violence. 2016 Jul;31(11):2102-26. PubMed:25724875

  5. Durand E, The protection of children exposed to intimate partner violence. Soins Pediatr Pueric. 2016 Nov – Dec;37(293):27-30. PubMed:27837769

  6. Holmes MR, Aggressive behavior of children exposed to intimate partner violence: an examination of maternal mental health, maternal warmth and child maltreatment. Child Abuse Negl. 2013 Aug;37(8):520-30. PubMed:23332295

#domesticviolence #PTSD #trauma

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