Living with domestic abuse harms children in many ways. How, and how deeply, children are affected depends on many things: the child’s age and gender; relationships with supportive, non-abusive adults; length of time the abuse has been going on; natural level of resiliency; and exactly what happens.
We care about you and your children. We want you all to feel safe, and not only survive your situation but overcome it, so that your history is not your destiny. We’re here to listen and to help. Call our helpline and we’ll talk through some options.
Here are some things you can do to help the children now:
- Reinforce the fact that abuse and violence are not okay.
- Reassure the child that the abuse is not his or her fault in any way.
- Listen to the child’s fears and feelings.
- Explain that people can disagree with respect and without violence.
- Assure the child that he or she is loved.
- Seek out extra support from another adult both you and the child trust.
- Get professional help if you see signs of emotional or behavioral issues.
- Teach the child how—and when—to call 911 for help.
Watch a short video about children and domestic abuse: WABI-TV’s “Children of Domestic Abuse,” part 1.
Frequently Asked Questions
Directly: The children, too, may be physically, emotionally, verbally, or sexually abused and/or neglected.
Indirectly: Their self-esteem, self-worth, and ability to trust are affected by the lack of predictability in the home, which may manifest itself in some or all of the following ways:
- Violence may erupt at any time
- Tension in the air that is not understood or explained and may actually feel worse than the explosion
- Inconsistent parenting with regard to routines, limit setting, and house rules; inattention to school work; extreme rules
- Child may work below ability in school, have poor peer relationships, and be labeled “lazy,” “troublemaker,” or “stupid”
- Child may be isolated, not allowed to spend time at friends’ homes, embarrassed to have friends come to the home, or not allowed to do so
- Parents may abuse drugs or alcohol and may do so in front of the children
- Child may accept blame for parents’ conflicts
- Feeling of “walking on eggshells”
- Trying to make everything right in order to prevent the explosion
- Children may take on parental roles: taking major responsibilities for younger siblings, taking care of mom after fight, taking care of home as mom is emotionally unable to do so
- Meals, adequate clothing, lunch money regularly forgotten or ignored
- Children may be asked to take sides during battles
- Children may have to “protect” siblings during violence: call police, friend, or ambulance
- Kids have to listen to insults, watch physical violence
Overall, the two people they look to for love and trust are an abuser and victim.
- Violence is an appropriate form of conflict resolution.
- Violence has a place within the family interaction.
- If violence is reported to others in the community, including mental health and criminal justice professionals, there are few, if any, consequences.
- Sexism, as defined by an inequality of power, decision-making ability, and roles within the family, is to be encouraged.
- Violence is an appropriate means of stress management.
- Victims of violence are, at best, to tolerate this behavior and, at worst, to examine their responsibility in bringing on the violence.
There are several reactions that children from violent homes are likely to show. The same emotional reaction can be acted out differently according to the child’s age.
FEELING RESPONSIBLE FOR THE ABUSE:
A child might think, “If I had been a good girl/boy Daddy would not have hit Mommy.”
Even when things are calm, one never knows when the next fight will start.
GUILT FOR NOT STOPPING THE ABUSE:
Children also experience guilt over the good feelings they have about the abuser.
Children who are separated from the abuser are in the process of grieving over the loss. Children may also grieve over losing the lifestyle and positive image of the abuser they had before the violence began.
Not knowing how one feels or having two opposite emotions at the same time is very difficult for children. A child who says, “I don’t know how I feel about it,” may not be hedging but rather is confused about feelings.
FEAR OF ABANDONMENT:
Children removed from one parent as a result of violent acts may have strong fears that the other parent could also leave them or die. Thus, a child may refuse to leave the mother, even for short time periods.
NEED FOR EXCESSIVE ADULT ATTENTION:
This need can be especially troublesome for mothers who are trying to deal with their own pain and decisions.
FEAR OF PHYSICAL HARM TO THEMSELVES:
A significant percentage of witnessing children are also abused. They may worry that the abuser will find them and abduct them or that the abuser will be angry and retaliate when they return home.
Especially for older children, sensitivity to the stigma of spouse abuse may result in shame.
WORRY ABOUT THE FUTURE:
The uncertainty within their daily lives may make children feel that life will continue to be unpredictable.
Below are some of the problems that might show up at home, school, or another family setting when a child sees or hears violence. These same problems can also come up because of other things. If a child you know has several of these problems, witnessing violence may be one of the causes.
- Sleep troubles, nightmares, fear of falling asleep
- Headaches, stomachaches, aches and pains
- Increased aggressive behavior and angry feelings
- A very high activity level (hyperactivity)
- Constant worry about possible danger
- Loss of skills learned earlier (toilet training, naming colors, math facts, etc.)
- Withdrawing from friends and activities
- Not showing feelings about anything (emotional numbness)
- Worrying a lot about the safety of loved ones
- Having trouble concentrating
- Repetitive play about violence
- Harming pets or other animals
Healing begins with supportive relationships. A helpful, supportive adult is the most powerful tool that we have to help children feel safe. Give children permission to tell their stories. It helps children to be able to talk about the violence in their lives with trusted adults. Give clear, simple explanations about scary events. Young children think differently than adults. They do no really understand the causes of violence and will often blame themselves.
Help children to know what to expect. Have rules and routines so children can predict what will come next. Build self-esteem in children. Children need daily reminders that they are lovable, competent, and important.
Teach alternatives to violence. Help children learn to solve problems and play in nonviolent ways. Model nurturing in your interactions with children. Be a role model for children by resolving issues in respectful and nonviolent ways.