What About the Kids? Children and Domestic Violence
Posted on June 28, 2022
In South Dakota, one in three women and one in four men will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, according to statistics. That’s a lot, especially since experts think up to half of all domestic violence goes unreported (2018 Bureau of Justice Statistics).
But domestic violence doesn’t just harm women and men. Parents or caregivers involved in a violent relationship may not know that the violence affects their children, but it does:
• Many children who witness violence are themselves abused.
• Children who witness domestic violence may develop serious emotional and behavioral problems.
• Children who witness domestic violence are at greater risk of being violent or experiencing violence in future relationships.
“Children coming from homes where they have been exposed to domestic violence may experience anxiety, depression, social problems, developmental delays or difficulty in school,” says Children’s Home Shelter for Family Safety Program Director Amy Carter.
The Damaging Effects on Children
The impact of witnessing violence affects each child differently. Some are more resilient than others, and the effects also vary by age:
• Preschool-aged Children
Young children exposed to domestic violence may regress, returning to behaviors they had when they were younger, like bed-wetting, thumb-sucking, increased crying and whining. They may have difficulty falling or staying asleep, begin stuttering and develop severe separation anxiety.
• School-aged Children
School-aged children often try to rationalize or understand domestic violence and may blame themselves for it. Other effects can include low self-esteem, poor grades and withdrawing from activities and participation. They may have fewer friends, get into trouble more frequently and show signs of stress, like headaches or stomach aches.
Teens who witness domestic abuse may act out in risky or negative ways. This may include fighting with family members, skipping school, having unprotected sex and using alcohol or drugs. It may also include starting fights, bullying or illegal activity. Other behaviors can include social isolation, depression and anxiety. (Office on Women’s Health, US Dept of Health and Human Services.)
The Lifelong Impact of Childhood Trauma
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “Children exposed to violence may have difficulty paying attention and display depression and withdrawal. In the long run, children who witness or experience violence at home are much more likely to perpetuate the cycle of abuse in their own relationships as they grow into adulthood.”
Children who witness domestic violence are experiencing trauma. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are traumatic childhood events that create dangerous levels of stress and can negatively impact the development of the child’s brain and body.
Studies show that ACEs put children at serious risk for lifelong physical and mental health problems, such as obesity, cancer, heart disease, depression, substance abuse, tobacco use and unintended pregnancies.
People with an ACEs score of 6 or more die an average of 20 years earlier than those without ACEs. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that more than 65% of alcoholism, 58% of suicide attempts and 78% of IV drug use can be attributed to ACEs.
What Can Be Done?
The first step that should be taken by anyone in a situation where domestic violence occurs is getting help. Children’s Inn provides many services to help victims and their children, including safe shelter.
“Once a child finds themselves in a safe place like Children’s Home Shelter for Family Safety, they have the opportunity to ‘just be a kid’ and start to heal. It’s amazing to see what stability, peace and safety can do for a family,” Amy says.
While children may never forget what they experienced, they can learn healthy ways to cope with their memories and emotions. The sooner the child receives help, the better their chances for becoming a healthy adult.
Ways to help your children include leaving the abusive situation, ensuring they feel safe, letting them know it’s not their fault, finding a support system for them (such as teachers, school counselors, therapists, etc.) and getting them professional help from a counselor or therapist.
Leaving an abusive relationship may help your children feel safer and make them less likely to tolerate abuse as they get older. If you decide not to leave, Children’s Home Shelter for Family Safety staff can help you create a safety plan to protect your children and yourself.