Effects of Domestic Violence on Children

by Dr. Shanthi Thomas

Domestic violence is any kind of behaviour that is used to gain control and power over a spouse, partner, or intimate family member. There are many kinds of domestic violence: Physical abuse, sexual abuse, controlling behaviour, emotional abuse and intimidation, verbal abuse, isolation, and economic abuse. Often, children are the most affected by domestic violence, both directly and indirectly.

Physical effects of domestic violence

  • Physical effects

Children in families where there is domestic violence tend to complain of general aches and pains such as stomach aches and headaches. They also might have irregular bowel habits and bed-wetting behaviour. They may be sleepy at school, as their nights might have been spent listening to or witnessing the violence at home. Many such children have poor personal hygiene and engage in high risk play activities and self-abuse. They may also show some of the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). They may appear nervous and have shorter attention spans. Constant fatigue and tiredness may also be observed in such kids. More overt signs of domestic violence such as physical injuries may be seen in some children.

  • Behavioral effects

Children who listen to or witness domestic violence often come to believe that violence is a normal part of life, and as a result, become either an abuser or a willing victim later in their lives. They might develop a mistrust of adults, act tough and have problems in becoming attached to other people. They may isolate themselves from friends and family, and withdraw into themselves. They might also lie in order to avoid being shouted at or having to confront people in authority. In school, their grades might drop not only because they do not have a conducive atmosphere at home for studies, but also because the everyday trauma reduces their motivation to study.

  • Psychological effects

Children who witness domestic violence often develop anxiety, depression, and even suicidal ideation. Children view their parents as the vessel that carries them safely, and any behaviour that is akin to a crack in the vessel will cause them to doubt their own safety. While some children become aggressive as a result of witnessing domestic violence, some others become introverted and withdrawn. Children who have witnessed or are subjected to domestic violence also show an increased tendency to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  They may re-experience the traumatic events in the form of memories and be distressed when exposed to stimuli that are connected in some way to the trauma. They may also develop hypervigilance, inappropriate anger and sleep disorders.

  • Effects of domestic violence on cognitive development

There are several scientific studies that have found that witnessing or undergoing domestic violence adversely impacts a child’s IQ and cognitive functions such as memory. It has also been found that the decrease in IQ is directly proportionate to the severity of domestic violence. There are also studies that have found that adverse childhood experiences directly affect the development of brain structures such as the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis and also the auditory and visual cortex. 

  • School-related effects of domestic violence

Children from dysfunctional families have significantly lowered chances of successful functioning at school. They are less likely to form healthy friendships. Typically, they gravitate towards children from similar backgrounds, and the dysfunctional behaviour get more and more deeply rooted. Since violence is seen as normal, there are greater chances of such children becoming bullies and getting into trouble with other students and teachers. In the adolescent age, such children may experiment with drugs and engage in experimental sex.

The repeating cycle

The unfortunate fact about domestic violence is that it does not end in one generation. Children who have themselves undergone domestic violence inflict the same pain on their own children when they become adults and parents. Thus the cycle continues endlessly.

Children who emerge unscathed from domestic violence

It is important to note that some children who have undergone or witnessed domestic violence emerge unscathed from the experience. They do not have any adverse cognitive, emotional, behavioral or psychological negative effects. Generally speaking, girl children tend to fare better. Also, high intellectual ability, social support, and higher socio economic status tend to provide a cushioning effect against the worst impacts of domestic violence. Some children are by nature resilient. They have a naturally high adversity quotient. They may be relatively unaffected by a family environment of violence; they may even be stronger because of it. However, it should be remembered that they are a small minority.


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