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.