Domestic violence includes acts of physical, sexual, and emotional aggression as well as the destruction of personal property or pets. It occurs across all levels of social and economic class. The increasing prevalence of domestic violence in U.S. households exposes more children to the emotional burden of coping with its many adverse effects.
Women and Children at Risk
While either gender in a domestic setting can initiate violence, the United States Department of Justice states that 95 percent of all victims of domestic violence are women. They further state that regardless of who puts the violent event in motion, women are 10 times more likely to suffer injury than men; the strength and physical size disparity puts them at higher risk. Likewise, living in a house with a violent male puts children at a much higher risk of injury or death. But even when the abuser never batters the child, the trauma and fear associated with witnessing his mother's abuse causes profound mental anguish that may manifest in a variety of negative ways. This adverse effect on families, individuals, and children results in a negative effect on society in general.
Death of Innocence
Children who witness domestic violence in the home usually show some outward signs of exposure, which can manifest in the form of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, behavioral and academic problems in school, and many other ways. Children may witness a single traumatic event, such as a severe beating, sexual assault, or murder; or they may witness a series of frequently occurring events of violence, such as chronic victimization of their mother, sexual abuse, or battering. Research has found that the latter has a greater impact on the social and psychological well being of victims and witnesses. Since domestic violence falls into this category, characterized by prolonged or frequent exposure to violence, children in these situations suffer numerous identifiable health issues.
Signs of Domestic Violence in Children
School age children presenting with anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) of clinical levels may live in a home where domestic violence occurs. Very young children, preschool to kindergarten, often cannot adequately verbalize their emotions. They do not understand the origin of the violence and often engage in self-blame, causing guilt, worry, and anxiety. Externally, they may exhibit withdrawal, loss of verbal competence, regression (such as bed-wetting), marked eating and sleep disturbances, anxiety, and frequent minor physical aches and pains.
Pre-adolescent children are more likely to verbalize their emotions, often in negative ways. They may suffer low self-esteem, a loss of interest in social interaction and activities with friends, and academic and behavioral problems at school. They may act out by using violent threats as a method of gaining control and power over siblings or actually hitting, kicking, or punching siblings and friends. The signs of domestic violence are often missed in pre-adolescent girls, as they tend to simply withdraw rather than exhibit many of the above-mentioned behaviors.
The presence of these behaviors in children by no means confirms that they are witnesses or victims of domestic violence, but these signs do reveal that they are having issues coping with some aspect of their lives.
Stand Up for Yourself, Stand Up for Your Child
If you live with your child in a situation where violence of any kind occurs, or has occurred – even once – you must stand up for yourself and the life of your child. Remember that emotional abuse, shame and humiliation, and destruction of your property or pets constitute domestic violence. These things are as equally destructive as physical abuse. When your child, no matter his age, witnesses your repeated victimization, he is suffering abuse right along with you. Talk to a qualified professional that you trust, such as your child's pediatrician or your obstetrician/gynecologist. He or she will help you get the help you need for you and your child.
Teachers, day-care workers, domestic employees, or anyone else who suspect child abuse or that a child is being adversely affected by witnessing domestic violence is morally and legally obligated to alert the proper authorities.