Up until relatively recently, mental health experts believed that domestic violence had only a limited impact on children and that children who did not directly witness the violence weren’t affected at all. Perhaps the severity of domestic violence and its impact on children was just too painful for society to face. In any case, we now know that domestic violence has an extraordinarily damaging impact on children, and even extreme yelling and parental fighting when no physical violence is present or witnessed can be damaging.
Fear, Anger, Depression, and Guilt
The most commonly witnessed impact of domestic violence on children is when children themselves develop mental health issues. Depression and anxiety disorders are the most common, but other disorders, including eating disorders, can also be caused or exacerbated by family violence. Most children, however, do not develop a diagnosable mental health condition. Instead, these children are more likely to struggle with guilt, shame, fears of abandonment, and conflicted feelings about whether or not to protect the family secret. They may also feel conflicted feelings about their parents- clinging to the parent one minute and lashing out at the parent the next.
Repeating the Cycle of Domestic Violence
Some experts estimate that half of boys who witness domestic violence and who receive no intervention will go on to be abusers themselves, making this perhaps the most dangerous and socially damaging impact of domestic violence. Even for boys who do not grow up to be abusers, however, domestic violence models negative conflict management skills and sets a child up to have difficulties in relationships as an adult. Girls are affected by the violence, too, and may be more likely to grow up to be abused women. Witnessing abuse normalizes the abuse and teaches girls that abuse is simply a part of an adult relationship. In both boys and girls, there is concern that witnessing domestic violence may desensitize them to violence, making them less likely to notice early signs of violent or problematic behavior in their adult relationships.
Especially for children who witness violence in adolescence, the risk of substance abuse- alcoholism and excessive drug use- is especially high. Teenagers tend to be more susceptible to pressure to cope with stress using substances, and kids who start using alcohol and drugs during their teen years are far more likely to become addicted.
Domestic violence can have a negative impact on children of all ages in terms of school performance. Younger children may become afraid to go to school and be away from their families, resulting in trouble with peers and trouble concentrating. Older children may neglect their school work load and see their grades slip. Teenagers are at an increased risk of skipping class and ultimately dropping out of school.
Difficulty With Friends
Our friends are often the people we turn to in times of immense stress, so one of the cruel ironies of domestic violence is the way in which it can prevent children from making and keeping friends. Children who witness domestic violence don’t learn age appropriate social skills and also have difficulty managing conflicts and stress, which makes them less attractive candidates for other children as friends.
Domestic violence is an urgent and serious social problem that affects future generations. If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE.