Research has clearly demonstrated that children who are exposed to domestic violence exhibit significantly more behavioral and emotional problems than children who have not been exposed. Importantly, children who are exposed to violence are more likely to use violence in solving problems as adolescents and adults.
Children’s reactions to exposure to violence can be immediate or appear much later. Reactions differ in severity and cover a range of behaviors. One common response is a loss of trust, while another is a fear of the event reoccurring. But not all children exposed to violence react in the same way. Some children exposed to domestic violence show no greater problems than children not so exposed. Even siblings in the same household may be exposed to differing degrees of violence depending on how much time they spend at home. Protective adults – including the child’s mother, relatives, neighbors and teachers, older siblings, and friends – may all play protective roles in a child’s life. The child’s larger social environment may also play a protective role if extended family members or members of church, sports or social clubs with which the child is affiliated act to support or aid the child during stressful periods.
Research has shown it is likely that a child who is exposed to domestic violence will also suffer other types of traumatic experiences. For example, the Adverse Childhood Experiences found that men exposed to physical abuse, sexual abuse, and adult domestic violence as children were 3.8 times more likely than other men to have perpetrated domestic violence as adults.
Public Policy Responses
Laws relating to childhood exposure to domestic violence have changed considerably in the last decade. These laws focus most often on criminal prosecution of violent assaults. There are several examples of recent legislative changes in criminal statutes in a number of states that directly respond to concerns about the presence of children during domestic violence assaults. Some laws have been changed to permit misdemeanor level domestic assaults to be raised to a felony level charge. In addition, many states now include the presence of domestic violence as a criterion that judges may use to determine custody and visitation arrangements when disputed.
There have also been very controversial changes in regulations in cases of exposure to domestic violence. For example, some e states approached child exposure by expanding the definitions of child maltreatment to include children who have been exposed to domestic violence. The implication of some of the states’ experiences with legislation, however, indicate that the impact of exposure also varies greatly, even within the same families; that children have a variety of protective and risk factors present in their lives; and that this varied group of children deserves a varied response from the laws and policies. For example, child protection systems are making efforts to keep children with their non-abusing caregivers, provide safety resources for both adult and child victims in a family, and develop new methods for intervening with men who both batter their adult partners and the children in their homes.
The greater challenge has been to develop community-based systems of care for children who are exposed to domestic violence but are not abused or neglected. For example, specialized children programs within domestic violence organizations, partnerships with community-based organizations, and evidence-based interventions for children exposed to violence that aim to decrease behavioral and emotional problems and support healing. Many of these programs stress the importance of protective adults, systems and communities and encourage parent-child dyadic interventions, especially with the mother.
But beyond treatment, there is an urgent need to engage community members in taking part in community-wide prevention, early intervention and treatment. Raising the awareness of this public health tragedy and building the capacity of formal and informal systems to respond to the needs of children exposed, impact of exposure, as well as the differing needs of families from different ethnic, cultural and demographic sectors may be derived from community engagement in these efforts.
What can parents and other caregivers do?
Domestic violence is extremely difficult to deal with as an adult, but being aware of how much it also affects children can help parents and other caregivers take action to protect their children and end the cycle of violence.
First and most importantly, it is critical for adults and children to be safe. Adults in care of children must take children to a safe place, such as the home of a friend or a relative or an emergency shelter. If a caregiver fears they are about to be hurt they need to call 911 immediately. The police can help figure out if they can leave home safely, or if they want to bring charges against the abuser. Whenever possible, the caregiver should take house keys, money and important papers with her.
Two critical steps a caregiver can take to care for their child(ren) when there is domestic violence happening at home
1) End their exposure to violence and make sure they are permanently safe. Until that time, it is important to:
- Provide physical security like food, shelter and clothing, in as many ways as possible.
- Help children develop age-appropriate and realistic safety plans
- Be clear about limits and expectations. Ensure that rules are appropriate to the age and development of the child. Use discipline to teach, not to punish.
2) Develop a caring and dependable relationship with the child, often a key buffer against the harmful effects of a child’s exposure to violence. To do this parents and other caregivers can:
- Listen to the children and let them know that there are adults that care about them and that these adults are interested in their opinions, thoughts, ideas, and feelings.
- Maintain routines. If you can’t keep normal routines, make new ones together.
- Help children feel in control. For example, whenever possible let them choose meals, pick out clothes, and make some decisions for themselves.
- Allow children to have their own feelings, allow for privacy if they don’t want to share, and respect their feelings (including their positive feelings) for the abuser.
- Refer children to trauma-informed, evidence0-based interventions when needed.
- Connect children with organizations in the community that work with youth, as appropriate.
Exposure to domestic violence may have a negative impact on children’s development. Recognizing and understanding those effects, and using that understanding to formulate treatment plans and strategies lies at the heart of trauma-informed care. Children who are struggling to deal with the consequences of exposure to domestic violence early in their lives clearly benefit from care that is supportive and sensitive to the circumstances they encountered throughout their lives.
We want to thank everyone who kept up with Safe Start through Domestic Violence Awareness Month and encourage everyone to continue work to raise awareness and help children exposed to domestic violence throughout the year.