How Exposure to Domestic Violence Impacts Child Development

By: Lynn Rosenthal
As seen on Nationwide Children's Hospital's 700 Childrens® Blog

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  • Become quiet or withdrawn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
girl with teddy bear

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.

Featured Expert

Lynn Rosenthal
The Center for Family Safety and Healing

Lynn Rosenthal 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.

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