How Exposure to Domestic Violence Impacts Child Development

Domestic violence in the home affects more than just the immediate victim. If children are present to see and/or hear it, it takes a toll on their healthy, natural development unless they receive support to help them cope and heal. Children exposed to violence may experience issues with attachment, school engagement, academic success, relationships and parenting.

Each child and situation is different, including their reactions. Some may have an emotional or physical reaction to violence. Reactions can be immediate or delayed. These can differ in severity and cover a range of behaviors. How a child responds to ongoing violence can vary by age. Here are some examples:

Young children (age 5 or under)

  • May be strongly influenced by caregiver’s reactions
  • Be irritable or fussy
  • Become easily startled
  • Cling to caregivers
  • Demonstrate younger behavior (thumb sucking, bed wetting)

Elementary school-age children (6-12 years):

  • Have difficulty paying attention at school or at home
  • Become quiet or withdrawn
  • Fight with peers or adults
  • Show negative changes in school performance

Older children (13-18 years):

  • Exhibit the most behavioral changes as a result of exposure to violence
  • Sleep more or less than usual
  • Refuse to follow rules and talk back
  • Talk about the violent event(s) all the time or deny that it happened
  • Experience frequent nightmares

How can you help?

The best way to help children is to make sure they feel safe and ensure them that whatever happened was, and is, not their fault. If a child’s behavior worries you, especially as a parent, don’t be afraid to share your concerns. Again, this varies based on age. Here are a few tips:

  • For a younger child, provide comfort (the child may want to talk or be held). It’s important to avoid unnecessary separation from important caregivers. Expect temporary clinginess.
  • For an elementary-school aged child, tell them that it’s normal to be upset, scared, angry, anxious or sad and that most people have this type of reaction to a difficult or violent situation. Answer their questions and be patient – talk with them about their experience as often as they want. Protect the child from re-exposure to scary situations or reminders (television programs, stories, video games).
  • For teens, it’s important not to force them to talk about the event, but to encourage discussion with family members or any trusted adult. Validate a teen’s strong feelings, such as guilt and shame, and encourage physical activity.

Is more help needed?

It is natural to hope that a child’s reactions will go away on their own within a few weeks. But if this isn’t the case, don’t ignore it. It’s important for a child to regain the feeling of safety and trust again.

It may be best to seek out a professional, such as a counselor, to help the child cope. If you believe a child may be in an unsafe home situation or witnessed domestic violence in the past, please call The Center for Family Safety and Healing at 614-722-8200 to learn about next steps.

For more information about behavioral health programs and services in Ohio, click here.

Karen Days, MBA
Karen S. Days is the president of The Center for Family Safety and Healing (TCFSH), which takes an integrated team approach to breaking the cycle of family violence and child abuse.Karen previously served as the president of the Columbus Coalition Against Family Violence (CCAFV) since its founding in 1999 and was interim president of the Center for Child and Family Advocacy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, which was merged with CCAFV to create the new CFSH.Karen previously spent 10 years working in the criminal justice field. Currently, Ms. Days is serving as a board member of the Columbus Board of Health, Franklin County Community Based Correctional Facility, Ohio Domestic Violence Network, the Learning Circle Education Services, Advisory Board of the State Victims Assistance Act (SVAA), and Ohio Dominican University Board of Trustees. She also served on the Columbus Police Foundation Board, Mount Carmel Hospital Foundation Board of Directors, YWCA Columbus, YMCA Metropolitan General Board, and the Board of Trustees for the United Way of Central Ohio.She has received the “Women of Achievement Award” from the YWCA and the “Karama Community Leadership Award” from the Columbus Urban League. Karen earned a Bachelor’s degree in Criminology/Criminal Justice from The Ohio State University and an MBA from Ohio Dominican University.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *