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Domestic Violence And The Effect On Children

Children who live in homes where there is domestic violence grow up in an environment that is unpredictable, filled with tension and anxiety and dominated by fear. This can lead to significant emotional and psychological trauma, similar to that experienced by children who are victims of child abuse.


Instead of growing up in an emotionally and physically safe, secure, nurturing and predictable environment, these children are forced to worry about the future.


They try to predict when it might happen next and try to protect themselves and their siblings. Often getting through each day is the main objective so there is little time left for fun, relaxation or planning for the future.  

Emotional and psychological trauma

Children living with domestic violence suffer emotional and psychological trauma from the impact of living in a household that is dominated by tension and fear. These children will see their mother threatened, demeaned or physically or sexually assaulted. They will overhear conflict and violence and see the aftermath of the violence such as their mother's injuries and her traumatic response to the violence.  Children also may be used and manipulated by the abuser to hurt their mother.


A report undertaken by the Queensland Domestic Violence Taskforce 1988 stated that 90 per cent of children present in violent homes had witnessed the violence perpetrated against their mother. In research undertaken by the Australian Institute of Criminology 15 per cent of young people surveyed had experienced domestic violence and 32 per cent of young people knew someone who had experienced domestic violence (National Research on Young People's Attitudes and Experiences of Domestic Violence 2000).  Children witnessing the violence inflicted on their mothers often evidence behavioural, somatic or emotional problems similar to those experienced by physically abused children (Jaffe, Wolfe, and Wilson 1990). 


Risk of physical injury

Children may be caught in the middle of an assault by accident or because the abuser intends it.  Infants can be injured if being held by their mothers when the abuser strikes out. Children may be hurt if struck by a weapon or a thrown object and older children are frequently assaulted when they intervene to defend or protect mothers (Hilberman and Munson 1977-78). 


Direct victim of physical or sexual abuse:

A child may be directly targeted by the perpetrator and suffer physical abuse, sexual abuse and/or serious neglect. It has been more than 2 decades since the overlap between domestic violence and child abuse was identified; men who abuse their partners are also likely to assault their children. The abuse of women who are mothers usually predates the infliction of child abuse (Stark & Flitcraft 1988). At least half of all abusive partners also batter their children (Pagelow 1989). The more severe the abuse of the mother, the worse the child abuse (Bowker, Arbitell, and McFerron 1988).


Daughters are more likely than sons to become victims (Dobash and Dobash 1979). Woman abuse is also the context for sexual abuse of female children. Where the mother is assaulted by the father, daughters are exposed to a risk of sexual abuse 6.51 times greater than girls in non-abusive families (Bowker, Arbitell and McFerron 1988). Where a male is the perpetrator of child abuse, one study demonstrated that there is a 70 per cent chance that any injury to the child will be severe and 80 per cent of child fatalities within the family are attributable to fathers or father surrogates (Bergman, Larsen and Mueller 1986). 


Violence occurring during or after separation including child abduction

There is clear evidence that abusers often increase their use of violence and abuse to stop their partners from leaving, or to force their partners and children to return home following separation. The abuser may attempt to take the children away from their mother to punish the woman for leaving and in some cases children have even been killed.  The risk to children during and following separation is substantial.  


Children and young people's reactions to domestic violence include 

  Self-blame          Helplessness       Grief        Ambivalence        Fear        Dread         Terror       Worry      Sadness        Helplessness        Shame       Anger         Numbness 


How domestic violence impacts on children

  Poor concentration        Aggression                  Hyperactivity,                      Disobedience              Disturbed sleep
Withdrawal                  Low self-esteem                 Emotionless                 Always on Edge
Pessimism                   Physical symptoms            Depression                  Anxiety       

  Withdrawal                     Abuse of parents         Parent-child conflict           Early relationships       Embarrassment

  Shame                           Poor self-image           Eating disorders                 Poor academic            Wandering       

  Isolation                         Violent outbursts         Risk-taking behaviours       Substance Abuse        Communication problems

  Suicide                           Caring for siblings       Protective role of mother     


The extent each child will be impacted varies depending on:

  • The length of time the child was exposed to the domestic violence;

  • The age of the child when the exposure began;

  • Whether the child has also experienced child abuse with the domestic violence;

  • The presence of additional stressors such as poverty, community violence, parental substance abuse or mental illness and  disruptions in family life;

  • Whether the child has a secure attachment to a non-abusing parent or other significant adult;

  • Whether the child has a supportive social network;

  • Whether the child has strong cultural identity and ethnic pride;

  • The child's own positive coping skills and experience of success;

  • Family access to health, education, housing, social services and employment. 


Often the behavioural and emotional impacts of domestic and family violence will improve when children and their mothers are safe, the violence is no longer occurring and they receive support and specialist counselling.


Apart from the emotional, physical, social and behavioural damage abuse creates for children, statistics show that domestic violence can also become a learned behaviour. This means that children may grow up to think it is okay to use violence to get what they want and as adults that it is okay for there to be violence in their relationships.


Getting Help To Stop Domestic Violence
One of the first things that we must realise is that domestic violence stems from behaviour that was learnt and the abuser more likely than not grew up in a home with domestic violence.


If you are in a domestic violent home, you have to make that first decision that 'enough is enough' and when that decision is made you need to find a trusted family member, a friend or your doctor and confide in them and try to get their support.  With that done, you should try to get professional help through a psychologist or prefessional counsellor to work with you.

All cases of domestic violence are not going to be handled the same way, in some cases your partner may agree to get help and in another case the partner might decide to leave or you may have to force him or her to leave and so every case is going to be different.  That is why professional help is advised.


In Barbados you can contact the Advocates Against Domestic Abuse (Email or Tel  246- 432-2873).

You can also contact a psychologist - see our listings or maybe your church counsellor.

Stand up, speak out and act to stop domestic violence and abuse

It is our responsibility to assist in ending domestic violence and we must stand up, speak out and act. Silence and inaction will let this violence continue. Here are some tips on how to stop domestic violence and abuse.

Tips for speaking out

If you observe your friends, family members or colleagues behaving abusively towards their partner or another person - especially women - and this can include sexually harassing a woman in the street or telling sexist jokes tell them how you feel about it and most of all do not support the behaviour.

Walk away or excuse yourself to show disapprobal of the behaviour and encourage others to do like wise and where possible offer support to the person being abused.

If you are aware that one of your friends, family member or colleague is abusing their partner it might be difficult to approach him or her but you can write them a note to suggest the need for him/her to get counselling and offer them your support.  In the note you can mention some of the negatives associated with the behaviour and remind the person that he/che can get help to be a better partner.

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