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Domestic violence, according to Ganley (1989) cited in Caesar and Hamberger (1989), includes physical abuse, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, and abuse to property and pets. Children of couples who engage in domestic violence are often exposed to intimate partner abuse and violence in numerous ways. The children could directly witness spousal abuse, may get harmed incidental to the abuse, their lives may be disrupted through separation from one parent, may be used by one parent as weapon of manipulating the other, and the likelihood of them falling victims of the actual abuse are also high.

Domestic violence is widespread and occurs among all socioeconomic groups of the world. Exposure of children to domestic violence is widely common. This problem is acknowledged by UNICEF (2006) which has also recommended that the problem be given more attention.

Ways through which children get to experience domestic violence

According to Whitfield et al (2003), if domestic violence occurs in a family, children are most likely to witness it through actually seeing it perpetrated or hearing or through hearing it happen if the parents took some measure to prevent the children from seeing abusive scenes. For this reason children become secondary victims of domestic violence and depending on their age are likely to get emotional and psychological harm.  Whitfield et al (2003) reported that not less than fifteen million American children lived in homes were intimate violence by partners had occurred at least within the previous one year. Seven million of these were exposed to partner violence that was severe. Another study by Catalano and Shannan (2007) revealed that thirty eight percent of partner violence incidences in the United States involved women who lived with children under twelve years old.


Children can also be affected by domestic violence by getting displaced when their abused parent (mostly the mother) moves out of the home with them and seeks another shelter. The National Network to End Domestic Violence (2009) reported that an estimated 16, 458 children were accommodated in a transitional housing facility or shelters for domestic violence victims across the United States in a single day of the year 2008. The study also found that an additional six thousand children sought shelter at non-residential program.

Research shows that children who witness domestic violence are on average more fearful and aggressive (Davies and Briggs, 2000). They in addition suffer from trauma-related symptoms such as anxiety and depression more than those who do not witness domestic violence or been abused (Child Information Gateway, 2009). The children who are raised up by parents who engage in partner abuse sometimes feel responsible and even guilty of the abuse since they may get to thinking that they parents abuse each other because of them , or the guilt may come from feeling unable to stop violence (Parameswaran, 2010).. The fear of the next beating, or even separation of their parents, is real and constant in them. Confusion or guilt may also arise in such children as they may not be sure of whether or not to love/hate the abuser or the victim. The children may also be placed at a higher risk of drug and /or alcohol abuse, perform poorly in school, experience ailments associated to stress like headaches and rashes, or even have cognitive problems (Weithorn, 2001) because the abuse can leave them with a sense of vulnerability, helplessness, and in extreme cases, horror (Volpe, 1996).  

Graham-Bermann and Seng (2005) in a study of pre-school children from low-income families in Michigan found that close to one half of the children had been exposed to more than one domestic abuse incident in their family. The children tended to indicate symptoms of post-trauma stress disorder in proportion to the nature of violence they had witnessed. The children were more likely to have nightmares, bet-wet, gastrointestinal problems, allergies, headaches, asthma and flu than their peers.

Impact of domestic violence on infants and their development

The impact of domestic violence also extends to babies, more so when the abuse occurs during pregnancy.  In her research using sheep as subjects Quinlivan (2000) found that if maternal levels of the stress hormone cortisol are raised during pregnancy, which is often the case for pregnant women involved in domestic abuse, the result is poor fetal growth, which is associated to subsequent development of adult diseases) and effects on brain development (reduction in the quantity of central nervous system myelination, delays in the growth of brain). Defects in myelination on the other hand have been linked to hyperactive childhood syndromes such as ADD ("Domestic violence", 2002). She in addition found increased vulnerability of the brain to chemicals and toxins as well as deficits in brain cell numbers. She concludes that 'removing any pregnant woman from an environment of abuse may be as critical for the future well-being of her infant as any other possible intervention in modern obstetrics' (Quinlivan, 2000, p.57).

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Traumatic domestic abuse and violence may also be attributed to some undesirable results of pregnancy and labor, such as low birth weight, stillbirth, miscarriage, and the birth of a disabled child ("Domestic violence", 2002). The stress of violence and abuse may lead to other consequences like failure to obtain plenty rest, medical care, and nutrition.

Impact on young children

Children may exhibit a wide range of reactions to exposure to violence in their home. Younger children especially preschool and kindergarten ones, considering that they typically do not have the ability to adequately express their feelings verbally, manifest their emotions through behaviors. They may become non-verbal, withdrawn, and exhibit regressed behaviors such as whining and clinging (Volpe, 1996). In addition, eating problems, concentration problems, sleeping difficulty, physical complaints, and generalized anxiety are all common to such children.

Effect on pre-adolescent children

The pre-adolescent children usually have greater ability to externalize negative emotions through actions such as clearly verbalizing them. In addition to symptoms commonly seen with childhood anxiety, victims within this age group may show low self-concept, disinterest in social activities, rebelliousness and oppositional behavior, and avoidance or withdrawal of peer relations. It is also common for such children to exhibit irritability, temper tantrums, frequent fighting with siblings or at school, lashing out at objects, threatening of peers or siblings with violence, treating pets abusively, and attempts to gain attention through kicking, hitting, or choking peers and/or family members. Unfortunately for girls, they are most likely to exhibit withdrawal and thus run the risk of going unnoticed as children in need of support.

Effects on adolescents

Adolescents on their part are at a higher risk of school drop-out, substance abuse, academic failure, and delinquency. Some studies have even suggested that a history of family violence or abuse constitutes the most significant difference between non-delinquent and delinquent adolescents (Volpe, 1996). Approximately one fifth to one third of all teenagers who are involved in dating relationships are frequently being abused or abusing their partners mentally, verbally, emotionally, physically, and/or sexually (SASS, 1996).

However, the effects brought about by exposure of children to domestic violence he effects of tend to lessen with passage of time. Strauss, Gelles and Smith (1990) argued that as although the impact can be extended to teenage years and even to adulthood, the effects generally tend to gradually disappear on cessation of the violence or the children are no longer exposed to it. They observed that some of the children even in their adulthood. The study by Strauss, Gelles and Smith (1990) also revealed that boys who witness domestic violence were more likely to batter their partners as adults and abuse their own children as well.

A strong correlation between child abuse and domestic abuse has been established by studies.  Edleson (1999) has indicated that there is approximately a 50 per cent overlap between domestic violence and child abuse. Children may be accidentally harmed through events of domestic violence. They may, for example, be hit by items thrown by the batterer. Older children may be hurt while trying to protect their mother. Edleson et al (2003) found in their study that the more severe the abuse against the mother, the more likely a child is to attempt to intervene in an incident. Other research suggests that women who are bartered by their husbands are much more likely to abuse their children compared to women who aren't (Terr, 1991). 

According to Bancroft and Silverman (2002) children are sometimes used as a tool for spying on and manipulating by their barterer parent's partner. For instance, a batterer parent may threaten to take custody of or kidnap the children if the victim reports the abuse. Worse still he may threaten to harm or even kill the children. Moreover, a batterer often demeans and insults his victim partner's parenting of the children. The victim mother may also be accused by the barterer father of "allowing" the abuse to happen and may be threatened with loss of custody of her children if she sought divorce from the barterer. In this struggle, it is the children who suffer the most, especially emotionally and psychologically. Without treatment, these children are at significant risk for delinquency, school drop-out, substance abuse, and difficulties in their own relationships (Volpe, 1996).

Helping Children and Adolescents Exposed to Domestic Violence

In trying to help children and adolescent suffering in one way or another from the domestic violence or abuse at home, it is important to take into consideration that some of the sufferers may be unwilling to talk because of getting warned at home against talking to strangers about their family issues, or because they are simply embarrassed to talk about it.  After identifying such a case, referrals to the appropriate school personnel could be the first step in assisting the child or teen in need of support (Volpe, 1996). Either a social worker, school psychologist, guidance counselor or even a school administrator can play a significant role in assisting the child get through especially the trauma. The degree of involvement of each one of these experts will be determined by the individual case of the problem. In addition, suspicion of child abuse is required to be reported to the local child protection agency by teachers and other school personnel. In some extreme cases, a contact with the local police department may also be essential.

The process of helping the child could be made much easier if the child is willing to open up and talk. The person involved should provide the child with ample opportunity to express their feelings and thoughts (Bernard, 2010). The child may also be encouraged to draw, write in a journal, or paint, which are viable ways for facilitating expression in younger children (Volpe, 1996).  For the case of adolescents, since they are in general more conceptual in their thinking and usually have better developed verbal abilities, it would be helpful for grown-ups who work with teenagers to encourage them to talk about their concerns without insisting on this expression. Lending an ear in a non-judgmental, warm, and genuine approach is often very comforting for sufferers and may be a significant initial step in their seeking further support (Bernard, 2010). Individual and/or group counseling, when appropriate, should be considered at especially at school if the sufferer is acquiescent.

From the discussion, it is clearly evident that intimate partner violence has far reaching negative consequences on the children who witness it. Because of the correlation between intimate partner violence and child abuse, it is imperative that the laws governing child abuse and child custody do not have inadvertent effects on battered women.

In addition, the link between child maltreatment and abuse of women calls for a strong coordination between child welfare advocates and domestic abuse agencies and advocates. In particular, it is important that agencies that work with abused children be trained to recognize signs of domestic violence and thereby respond appropriately.

Ensuring that the social as well as legal responses to cases of domestic violence involving children do not condemn or re-victimize the abused parent or further traumatize the children is also critical. Advocates and all those responding must carefully think about the available options and endeavor to do what is best to help make all victims safer, while holding the perpetrators of the abuse accountable for their acts.

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