Children, especially early in their lives, learn their most important lessons from their parents. However, if they’re learning from parents involved in domestic violence, the outcome can be more damaging than people believe. Many children exposed to domestic violence are affected by its outcome in each stage of life, including adulthood. In this post, we’re going to focus on how children’s health is impacted by domestic violence.
The following content is adapted from our book Violence Against Women: Contemporary Examination of Intimate Partner Violence. The terms domestic violence (DV) and intimate partner violence (IPV) are used interchangeably.
In the stages of early development, domestic violence affects children differently. Usually, the impact of a child’s social and emotional health occurs through compromising attachment or through inconsistent parenting.
Infants exposed to domestic violence are more likely to demonstrate signs of trauma, such as more frequent crying, dysregulated sleep and feeding patterns, and difficulties responding to adults. There is also an increased risk of insecure attachments which means they can be irritable and difficult to soothe as a result.
Toddlers are more likely to have nightmares and have excessive separation anxiety from domestic violence exposure. As they grow, it is more likely they find it acceptable to use violence and intimidation to resolve conflict and control others, blame the victim, and internalize gendered stereotypes including the message that women are inferior to men. Their learning abilities also suffer, as studies show toddlers exposed to DV have delayed language and social development.
In the case of school-aged children exposed to domestic violence, they are more likely to have internalizing (depression and anxiety) and externalizing (aggression and inattention) disorders at higher rates, more likely to be suspended from school and 1.5 times as likely to be truant. Children at this age also typically have higher rates of school nurse visits for injuries, social and emotional concerns, and alcohol or drug assessments.
Adolescents may be inappropriately required to take on a ‘parental’ role, offering support and care-giving to the parent experiencing the abuse or to younger children. This early requirement of heightened familial responsibility may have an adverse impact on emotional health. Domestic violence-exposed adolescents often enter into their own dating relationships with violence. Boys exposed to domestic violence are more likely than those not exposed to domestic violence to perpetrate similar behaviors while domestic violence-exposed girls are more likely to be abused. Adolescents exposed to domestic violence also engage in risk-taking behaviors, including risky sexual practices and substance abuse at higher rates than their peers.
Among the physical health effects of children exposed to domestic violence, the most notable effect is a higher incidence and prevalence of asthma and other respiratory ailments. Studies also show when children are exposed to chronic IPV during infancy have an 80% increased odds of becoming obese by the age of 5.
Although the physical health effects start in childhood, it continues throughout a lifetime. There is an association between adverse childhood experiences and adult disease outcomes, as well as strong influence of childhood abuse on poor physical health as an adult.