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December 13, 2011

Caught in the Crossfire: Children and Domestic Violence

Domestic Violence: Through the Eyes of a Child

By Tracy Burt, Support Network for Battered Women

Domestic Violence: Through the Eyes of a Child

The domestic violence movement has become increasingly aware of the devastating impact of domestic violence on children’s lives. Over three million children in the United States are exposed to parental violence each year. Whether or not children actually witness the violence, they are now considered to be victims of this epidemic.

As they grow and develop, children form assumptions about the world in which they live. Is their world consistent and predictable or chaotic and unsafe? Will their parents be able to keep them safe and protected? Exposure to domestic violence creates inordinate stresses in a child’s life.

In addition to the trauma of knowing that one parent hurts another “on purpose,” children in homes where domestic violence occurs are 15 times more likely to experience child abuse than children in non-violent homes. Instead of becoming used to regular routines in a safe environment, children enter an environment filled with stress and tension.

The Early Years

From the time children are conceived, they become intimately connected with and affected by domestic violence directed at their mothers. Violence tends to increase during pregnancy, which in turn contributes to an increased rate of miscarriage. Infants often develop an intense fear of adults, lose their appetite and scream incessantly. Unfortunately, these behaviors create more strain for families that are already over-stressed.

Acting Out

Sharon is four years old. She has trouble focusing at school and often hits other children in her class...

Every child responds differently to witnessing or directly experiencing domestic violence, depending on his or her temperament, usual coping mechanisms, developmental stage and support systems. Some children may respond with internalized symptoms such as regression and social isolation. Others may develop externalized negative behaviors that includes nightmares, hyperactivity, aggression and delinquency.

Research about children of various ages has found that from 50 to 70 per cent of children exposed to domestic violence suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at a higher rate than either Vietnam Veterans or rape victims. Violence puts them at significantly higher risk for behaviors ranging from extreme withdrawal to hyperactivity and for consequences ranging from school failure to suicide and criminal behavior.


Jeff is thirteen. He has lived with his mother and father his entire life. He loves both his parents but feels angry with his Dad for hitting his Mom and angry at his Mom for not protecting herself. Over the last few years, Jeff has begun to take the situation into his own hands, vowing to stop his Dad from ever hurting his Mom again.

Mothers in violent relationships are often unable to protect their children from their batterers, who may threaten children’s physical safety in order to control her behavior. The violence takes a mother away from her children, both physically and emotionally. Ironically, mothers often stay in violent relationships so that their children can maintain their relationship with the second parent (father/partner). Children are often literally “caught in the crossfire” and may be injured when an object is thrown or when they try to protect their mother.


Nina is nine. She is well-behaved and performs well in school, but has made up elaborate lies about her happy family. Her shame prevents her from ever having friends over.

As children age, they feel increasingly responsible for the violence in their homes. A school-aged child often feels caught between love for the father and desire to protect the mother. Shame becomes a dominant theme. Children become increasingly isolated from their peers as they act out in school and cease to invite friends home. As children grow into teens they develop higher levels of delinquency and violent behavior than those in non-violent homes.

The Perfectionist

“If only I did better in school...”

On the other hand, a child may become intensely perfectionist, believing that he will be able to make things better between his parents if only he is “good enough.” Children who follow this path tend to do well in school and consequently are not identified by teachers as needing help or support. Without outside support children continue these patterns and are at a higher risk for suicide and other self-destructive behaviors.


Joshua is fifteen. He hates his father and vowed that he would never treat women the way that his father treats his mother. He recently began dating a girl in his class. He has found himself becoming increasingly jealous of time she spends with her friends and last week he hit her ...

As teens explore romantic relationships, the relational patterns they have learned at home, based on control and dominance rather than respect and equality, often affect their expectations of romantic partners. But with intervention, the cycle of violence can be interrupted.

Breaking the Cycle

While the picture for children exposed to domestic violence may at first appear dismal, Support Network staff and volunteers bear witness daily to the incredible resilience of children. The most critical factor in determining whether a child will be able to overcome the devastating impact of growing up exposed to domestic violence is the existence of a consistent and supportive relationship in their lives, often with a teacher, counselor, or extended family member.

When we work with children at the Support Network we help them identify and build upon their strengths, while at the same time developing supportive relationships. We provide both individual and group counseling, including psycho-educational groups for 5 to 8- year-olds and 9 to 12-year-olds. Being a part of these groups is often the first opportunity children have to share their experiences with children their own age. The children learn to support each other and themselves. We hear again and again how participation in our groups transforms children’s lives.

Finally, our consistent support of mothers constitutes an essential intervention in the lives of children. Empowering mothers to be able to make positive changes in their lives and supporting their healing process is one of the most important keys to helping children heal and to break the intergenerational cycle of violence. As children begin to express their feelings and to understand the causes and effects of their behavior, they are able to begin changing the patterns in their lives.

Every member of our community has opportunities to support children living in violent homes. Reaching out to a neighbor’s child, volunteering time to work on our crisis line or with children, and talking to others about the effects of domestic violence on children all help to interrupt the cycle of violence and promote prevention and healing.

Children and Domestic Violence: The Facts

Children in homes where domestic violence occurs are 15 times more likely to experience child abuse than children in non-violent homes.

50 to 70 per cent of children exposed to domestic violence suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a higher rate than either Vietnam Veterans or rape victims.

Violence tends to increase during pregnancy, resulting in an increased rate of miscarriage.

As children grow into teens they exhibit higher levels of delinquency and violent behavior than those in non-violent homes

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