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Effects of Domestic Abuse on Children

Many children exposed to violence in the home are also victims of physical abuse. Children who witness domestic violence or are victims of abuse themselves are at serious risk for long-term physical and mental health problems. Children who witness violence between parents may also be at greater risk of being violent in their future relationships.

If you are a parent who is experiencing abuse, it can be difficult to know how to protect your child.

Children Running
Impact of Abuse on Children: Video

Fear, confusion, guilt, anger, frustration, tummy aches, and worry. The smallest children are too young to appreciate what other people are feeling. Nevertheless, visible cues like blood and crying signal that someone is hurt. Older children and teenagers are better able to put themselves in their parents' positions. If a mother gets physically hit, many can imagine how she feels.

Some try hard to stay out of the way - below the radar - lest they become the next target. They may think, “will I get in trouble, will I get yelled at, will I get hit, will I die?” Children who feel responsible for starting the “fight” are likely to blame themselves for any negative consequences such as visible injury, arrest, incarceration, or one parent leaving the family. Some hope for rescue, perhaps by super heroes.

Some children will blame their mother for doing whatever she is being accused of by her partner, perhaps spending too much money or not having dinner ready on time. If their father was taken away by police on a previous occasion, they wonder if it might happen again. His arrest is welcomed by a few but dreaded by others. Some children believe they themselves will be taken by the police, for being bad and causing the fight. Some are angry at their mother for not stopping the “fight” to prevent the police from coming.

  • “it's my fault they are fighting” 

  • if there is no blood or other signs of injury, Mommy is not hurt

  • if Mommy is not crying, she is not upset or no longer upset

  • once the “fight” stops, everything goes back to normal

  • “if I try really hard to be good, they won't fight again”

Hiding, praying, wrapping pillows around their ears, humming, clutching teddies, hugging pets, wearing headphones and turning up the music, concentrating intently on something else, pretending they are somewhere else. Older children may shepherd the younger ones to a safe place and try to keep them calm. Some teenagers intervene in the “fight,” playing the peacemaker, the referee, the rescuer, or the protector.

Next morning, next week, next month - one thought remains: will it happen again? Being keen observers, little eyes watch for anything they believe (rightly or wrongly) to be triggers. Seeing beer or liquor bottles may unleash a flood of emotions. Adults know that alcohol does not cause violence but in some homes, alcohol and violence seem to young eyes to go hand-in-hand. Little ears listen for raised voices or swearing and bad names. When violence has long been a feature of family life, children are hyper-sensitive to the cues and know when it is time to gather the younger kids and get out, or time to be sad and afraid because it's the only thing they can do.

Cunningham, A., & Baker, L. (2007). Little eyes, little ears: How violence against a mother shapes children as they grow. Public Health Agency of Canada.

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