Developing in an environment that includes domestic violence can have profound short- and long-term effects, psychologically, socially, and cognitively. These impacts can be and have been observed in infants through adolescents. Researchers have found that about 35% of children exposed to domestic violence test in the clinical range for internalizing and externalizing problems and about 45% test in the borderline range (Howell, Barnes, Miller, Graham-Bermann, 2016).
Children who are exposed to domestic violence are more vulnerable to developing difficulties related to the following:
· Depression: These symptoms can be characterized by low and/or irritable mood, changes in sleeping and eating, feelings of guilt, feelings of worthlessness, decreased activity in enjoyable tasks, difficulty concentrating, etc.
· Anxiety: These symptoms can be characterized by fear and worry, restlessness, feeling on edge, difficulty concentrating, etc.
· Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: These symptoms can be characterized by distressing memories of the event, possibly including nightmares, avoiding triggers of the memories or distressing thoughts, hypervigilance, etc. Of note, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have been observed in infancy throughout childhood and adolescence.
· Insecure attachment: Children exposed to domestic violence prenatally through two years old are also at increased risk of developing insecure attachments to caregivers, which can later negatively influence children’s social development with peers. Insecure attachment is characterized by a push and pull, when at times the child may cling to a caregiver or peer and other times engage in behaviors to push them away.
· Emotion and Self-Regulation: During early development, children rely on caregivers to learn how to manage their emotions and regulate their behavior. Often times, children who are exposed to domestic violence tend to engage in aggressive and/or hostile behaviors toward those around them, including caregivers, siblings, authority outside of the family, and peers. During adolescence, these children may exhibit increased delinquent and defiant behaviors.
· Social Skills: These difficulties may include social withdrawal development of less social skills and less healthy relationships compared to the child’s peers. Additionally, these children often report more conflict with peers and are at increased risk of engaging in dating violence.
The following are just a few ways to help children who have been exposed to domestic violence:
· Build a safe, stable environment: Structure and consistency can help children learn and know what is expected of them and what they can expect from their environment.
· Model positive emotion regulation and coping: Children often look to their caregivers as role models for how to manage their emotions and confront or cope with stressors; therefore, it is important for positive skills to be modeled.
· Seek out additional resources: Connecting with community resources can provide additional information and support for the child and caregiver. Additionally, connecting with services such as individual and family therapy could be helpful to address and improve upon difficulties noted above.
Author: Melanie Levitt, M.S.
Edleson, J.L. (1999). Problems associated with children’s witnessing of domestic violence. VAWNET: The national Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women.
Howell, K.H., Barnes, S.E., Miller, L.E., Graham-Bermann, S.A. (2016). Developmental variations in the impact of intimate partner violence exposure during childhood. Journal of Injury and Violence, 8(1), 43-57.
Resources · Childhood Domestic Violence Association: https://cdv.org/ · National Resource Center on Domestic Violence: https://www.nrcdv.org/