Children exposed to domestic violence are at high risk of developing mental health disorders and substance abuse issues later in life. This is true regardless of whether they are physically victimized or observe the victimization of loved ones. Exposure to domestic violence causes damage to children’s emotional and social development and mental health.
A study conducted in 1992 found that approximately 3.3 million to 10 million children in the United States are exposed to domestic violence each year. While this violence can take many forms, the U.S. government has determined that 95 percent of domestic violence involves women victimized by male partners. According to the National Violence Against Women survey conducted in 2000, approximately 1.3 million women and 835,000 men are physically assaulted by an intimate partner each year.
The effect of witnessing domestic violence
Children are highly intuitive and sensitive beings. For this reason, they suffer greatly when exposed to domestic violence. This exposure includes being physically abused or seeing, hearing or even being aware of abuse happening to a parent, sibling or loved one. Children deal with this trauma in different ways.
Some children exposed to domestic violence lose the ability to empathize with others. They might act out or use violence to express themselves. This is why many bullies resort to violence or emotional abuse, as this is how they have learned to communicate. A 1990 study found that males who witness domestic violence as children are more likely than others to batter their partners or abuse their own children later in life. They learn as children that violence is an effective form of conflict resolution, so they apply it to their future relationships. Similarly, females who witness domestic violence as children are more likely to end up in abusive relationships, having grown up with the belief that a certain level of violence and trauma is normal in relationships.
Many children internalize these traumatic feelings and blame themselves for triggering domestic violence. These children might have intense nightmares or bedwetting episodes as a result of the state of constant fear in which they live. They often struggle with depression, anxiety and/or post-traumatic stress disorder through adolescence and into their adult lives, as the effects of trauma are long-lasting. Withdrawal and isolation are also common among children who have been victims of or exposed to domestic violence, as they often feel extreme social discomfort and a lack of knowledge with regard to boundaries and what is appropriate in interpersonal relationships. Many turn to self-harm as a coping skill to release their pain. In very young children, domestic violence has proven to cause developmental delays in speech, motor and cognitive skills.
Children who are victimized or otherwise exposed to domestic violence are at high risk of struggling with substance abuse, in addition to the aforementioned mental health disorders. This is due to the fact that they have not developed adequate coping skills to deal with their emotions and feelings. Oftentimes, at no fault of the abused parent, children of domestic violence never have an entirely positive role model. If a mother is being beaten by her husband, she lives in constant fear and is unable to be fully present for her children. However, children can learn poor coping skills from both parents in these situations as they try to disassociate from their pain.
If your child is a survivor of or has been otherwise exposed to domestic violence, help is available. It is important that he or she receives the mental health care that is necessary to ensure the development of health coping skills and to treat any existing or developing mental health disorders.
Sovereign Health Rancho San Diego is a treatment facility that specializes in helping adolescents and teens who are struggling with mental health issues, substance abuse and dual diagnosis. If your teen is in need of help, please call to speak with a professional today.
Written by Courtney Howard, Sovereign Health Group writer