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Witnessing domestic violence as a child has just as detrimental an impact on children as actually experiencing the abuse firsthand. Domestic violence is defined as women (mothers, stepmothers) who were abused by either their husbands or boyfriends. The violence included hurting her with weapons (knives, guns, or others), throwing objects at her, or hitting, biting, slapping, or grabbing her. In fact, children who witnessed domestic violence had the same risk for post-traumatic stress disorder as soldiers returning from war. Thus, this is a very real and serious issue.
The effect of witnessing domestic violence on children
I didn’t witness domestic violence as a child, but this is a common enough occurrence that I have met many people who have. They have told me:
- They thought it was normal.
- They feel robbed of their childhood.
- They felt depressed and suicidal from a young age.
- They became hyper vigilant to avoid getting beaten.
- They have very low self-esteem even as functional adults.
- They struggle in their current relationships.
One key reason witnessing domestic violence as a child is so harmful is that it makes children feel unsafe. This is harmful to child development because safety is regarded as one of the most basic and fundamental human needs. It is especially important during the foundational, early years of a child’s life. Healthy development is based on a sense of trust in the environment.
Without trust, children will likely be preoccupied with worry. They may feel as though they are always walking on eggshells, never knowing what to expect. They may experience chronic anxiety or depression, even starting from a young age. Studies have found that some of the specific effects during childhood include post-traumatic stress disorder, bed-wetting, nightmares, asthma, allergies, gastrointestinal issues, and the flu.
One study that focused specifically on women who witnessed marital violence found that it was associated with family mental health risks, child sexual and physical abuse, physical assaults by strangers, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Long term effects of witnessing domestic violence as a child
The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES) also found that there are long term effects of witnessing domestic violence as a child. Some of the reported effects were increased risk for drug use, alcohol use, and depression during adolescence. Other studies have found that witnessing domestic violence as a child is associated with physical problems such as obesity, cancer, and heart disease.
In addition, there are some hidden difficulties that they are likely to experience as adults. Namely, individuals who witnessed domestic violence in their childhood are susceptible to experiencing relationship sensitivities and will be set on a course to repeat dysfunctional relationship patterns in their adult relationships.
Although the actual witnessing of the traumatic event can have serious negative effects in its own right, the view of many family therapists is that the underlying relationship dysfunction that led up to it is also an important factor that needs to be addressed in order to find complete healing.
Justine’s story of witnessing domestic violence in childhood
Justine* grew up with parents who loved her very much. As a young child, she was doted on by her parents and received a great deal of positive attention. However, they lacked the emotional maturity necessary to provide her with a consistent, healthy environment because of their own difficult childhoods. This resulted in them oscillating between permissive, overly-positive parenting to authoritarian, overly controlling parenting. In this dynamic, Justine became dependent on them for approval, as well as overly compliant, to avoid being punished.
As Justine got a bit older, her parents started to experience more stress. Her dad was struggling to find work that could meet their financial needs, and her mother felt anxious due to the father’s growing negativity. This created a great deal of emotional tension in their household, and without emotional resources, they started to experience more conflict. They both relied heavily on each other to provide them with validation and make them feel happy, and when this was replaced with conflict, much of their childhood pain came flooding back. They again felt alone and empty.
To numb some of their pain, they both self-medicated with various substances at various times—sleeping pills, drugs, and alcohol. This resulted in even more unhealthy conflict. When they would fight, the substances they were using would heighten their emotional reactivity, so their conflict would often escalate into violence (her father being violent towards her mother).
Although this would usually happen behind closed doors, Justine could hear her parents screaming at each other from her room and would see evidence of the violence in her mother’s appearance and broken things around the house. However negative these episodes were, they were always followed by especially fun, positive times. Justine even found herself looking forward to fights because of the positive times that would follow. However, the good times never lasted very long, as small things would lead her parents to fight again and the cycle would repeat.
As a teenager, Justine grew angry at her father for his violence toward her mother. She would often get in heated fights with him, and he even slapped her a few times. Strangely enough, she still felt a strong need for his approval. One look of disappointment from him would leave her feeling very depressed. She tried very hard to do well in school so that she could please her parents. Her self-esteem was very dependent on their good opinion of her.
Justine also turned to boys around this time for a boost to her self-esteem. She dated a lot and was promiscuous. She felt better about herself when she had a boyfriend. It gave her confidence and made her feel whole. But the breakups were devastating to her self-confidence and brought her back to feeling empty and alone. She didn’t feel whole without a relationship. On one occasion, a mixture of a breakup and conflict at home left her feeling that there was nothing left for her in the world and that she was completely unwanted. So she tried to kill herself.
She survived her suicide attempt and went to college. Her efforts in high school left her with good grades and she was accepted to a prestigious school. She had high ambitions—she wanted to have an impressive career to make up for her lack of self-esteem. However, her personal issues often got in the way of her success. Whenever she would have a breakup, her grades would take a pitfall and she was back to feeling worthless and out of control. She went through many relationships. Each was marred by conflict and didn’t last long.
She eventually found someone who was a good fit for her and they decided to get married. They both struggled with dysfunctional family homes growing up and found comfort in each other. In the beginning, they did their best to meet each other’s emotional needs and were quite happy. But as stresses mounted and they started to have children, it was too much to take care of each other all of the time. Justine never learned from her parents how to self-soothe, always looking to the relationship to calm her. Her husband did the same. They began to feel resentful toward one another for not meeting their needs.
Justine was very sensitive to any sort of anger on her husband’s part, as this brought her back to the fear of her father’s anger as a child and its resulting feeling of helplessness. Another lasting effect of her childhood was a sensitivity to disapproval—any look on her husband’s face that hinted at disapproval left her feeling rejected and distraught. These things would trigger her emotionally and make her lash out aggressively. Her husband also had his own sensitivities from dysfunctional family life growing up. Combined, they ended up triggering each other often and having frequent, vicious fights.
10 signs to look for in children who witness domestic violence
Is a child you know like Justine? The Child Witness to Violence Project lists the following as indicators that a child is witnessing domestic violence:
- They have trouble sleeping
- They have physical symptoms (headaches, stomach aches) without any clear cause
- They are aggressive or have angry outbursts
- They are hypervigilant, very worried, overreactive to loud noises
- They regress to more babyish behaviors
- They withdraw
- They act numb
- They have separation anxiety
- They have difficulty concentrating
- They have changes in play—more violent, less creative, spontaneous play
How to help if you notice these signs
If you notice these signs, the best way to help the child is to help the parents, and in particular, the battered parent. Don’t try to confront the batterer yourself, but offer your concern and emotional support to the battered Offer them a safe place to sta, or give them resources for support services.
What to do if this is happening to you
If you are currently experiencing this as the abused woman, then you can seek out help from your support system, go to a therapist, or call a hotline found on these pages:
If you are in immediate danger, call 911 or the emergency number in your country.
How to help children recover from witnessing domestic violence
The Department of Health and Human Services recommends doing the following in order to help your child recover from witnessing domestic violence:
- Help them feel safe
- Discuss their fears with them
- Discuss healthy relationships with them
- Discuss boundaries with them
- Help them find a healthy support system
- Find professional help for them
In addition, if you want to leave the relationship, consider making a well-developed plan. However, its important to not mention your plan to your children, as children may accidentally tell your abuser. This could prove dangerous for you and your child, so it is best to not tell your children the plan beforehand.
How to heal from the effects of severe family dysfunction as an adult
The first step in healing from such experiences is to gain a more objective view of your parents. Without excusing the irresponsible behavior of the abuser, you can see that they probably learned from a young age to relate to others in an emotionally immature way. This objectivity grants you a great deal of power, helping you to see that truly, it’s necessary to work on yourself to break the cycle.
Surprisingly, this actually helps you in your current relationships. Many of us aren’t aware of how intensely our early relationships are still affecting us. We can be very sensitive to certain things that our current romantic partners do that remind us of our parents.
For instance, if your parent’s abuser was very controlling, you might be intensely sensitive to any sort of controlling behavior on the part of your partner, even if it’s very subtle or even nonexistent. Gaining a more objective view of the abuser takes away some of this intensity. You stop feeling like the powerless child you once were, and start to see that you are on equal footing with both the abuser and your current romantic partner.
The next step is to see what dysfunctional relationship patterns you are continuing in your current relationships. There are 4 universal patterns that humans use to avoid facing anxiety in their relationships. They are:
- one person gives in to the other,
- emotional conflict,
- emotional distance, and
- parents over-focusing positively or negatively on a child to avoid their own relationship problems
As long as you are ignorant of these patterns, you will be controlled by them. But when you learn about them and can see your own contribution to them, you have the power to stop participating in them.
The last step is to address some of your own emotional immaturities, the main one being heightened togetherness needs (needs for closeness, agreement, approval, etc.). The stronger your togetherness needs, the more you place your own happiness in the hands of another and vice versa. To address this problem, you need to take responsibility for your own happiness by learning to self-soothe when you feel anxious. You also will need to stop looking to the relationship as a means to happiness, and instead, look to yourself.
Witnessing domestic violence as a child can have serious lifelong effects. On top of greater risk for depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, and physical health risks are the more hidden ones: inherited emotional immaturities and their resulting relationship sensitivities. Addressing your past, learning about current relationship patterns, and taking personal responsibility can help individuals who experienced trauma in dysfunctional families break the chain of dysfunction and give their children, and the many generations following a wonderful gift.
*Justine is a pseudonym. She is a composite personality based on people I have known.