Recognising Children's Responses to Domestic Violence
The effects of domestic violence can be seen in a child’s responses to their experiences. There are various strategies children may use to deal with their situation.
Immediate effects are the responses and reactions a child shows in the short term after violence occurs. This can be immediately after the incident and up to 2 to 3 weeks following. It is important to remember that these reactions are a natural response to the situation the child has just been through and that each child will react in their own individual way.
The coping strategies children use can involve their feelings (emotional), their thoughts (cognitive) or actions (behavioural). There can also be the additional physical impact of the perpetrator’s violence. The following immediate effects have been found in children.
Children can suffer various physical injuries, including bruises and broken bones. They may develop psychosomatic illness including headaches, asthma, abdominal complaints, stuttering, depression, anxiety, anger, poor self-esteem and a sense of powerlessness.
Behavioural and social
- be dazed and confused
- seek comfort more frequently
- be clingy and have separation anxiety
- demonstrate acting out behaviours, destroy or damage property, display disobedience in school, display fighting and bullying behaviour
- become bossy and overcontrolling of others
- be pre-occupied with the incident, making it a feature of their conversation and play
- run away, invent stories, engage in repetitive play, adopt risk-taking behaviours
- display difficulty in communicating, become silent, hide or leave the room
- demonstrate withdrawn or passive behaviours
- have difficulty in trusting others or inappropriately trusting others without getting to know them first, having no boundaries
- withdraw from their friends and social activities
- show aggression in their language and behaviour, be cruel to animals or siblings
- become demanding in their behaviour, seeking conflict, acting defiantly or engaging in constant fighting
- exhibit self-destructive behaviour, poor impulse control and conduct disorders
- have difficulties with peer relationships and social skills
- use violence and threats to resolve conflict.
Cognitive and emotional
- display intense fear and insecurity
- have feelings of anxiety or fear, insecurity, hyper-vigilance
- be withdrawn, sad, angry, moody, clingy, irritable or angry
- suffer separation anxiety
- exhibit psychosomatic illnesses such as unexplained headaches, stomach pains or stuttering
- experience worsening of existing medical problems such as asthma
- have disturbed sleep—including nightmares, difficulty in falling asleep, constant waking, fear of the dark or restlessness, wetting the bed
- experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Such stress typically overwhelms a person’s coping abilities and may manifest as extreme fear, helplessness and/or horror and severe anxiety
- show mood and personality changes, including emotional volatility, poorer self-esteem and lack of self-confidence
- display decreased cognitive ability and poor educational and academic performance
- experience learning difficulties which may be a result of diminished school attendance
- find it difficult to focus in the classroom because they are worried about their mother and siblings, or they haven’t slept the night before due to yelling, screaming and fear of what may happen to their mother
- experience denial
- postpone attending to their own needs
- identify with violent and abusive feelings.
The impact on children on a development level can be shown by:
- regression in development, including the loss of previously acquired skills such as toilet training or naming colours
- inability to pay attention or focus on tasks, leading to poor school performance
- learning disorders, including reduced verbal processing and reading, learning delay or diminished intellectual performance
- not having self-awareness or protection relating to their body, touching and others.
Short-term to medium-term effects
Short-term to medium-term effects in children occur when children are still dealing with the aftermath of a violent episode and can last up to a year after the trauma. These responses are similar to immediate reactions and can include the following:
Children may require medical treatment due to injuries sustained. They may experience hearing difficulties, eye problems, chronic illness including vomiting, eating disorders, allergies etc. They may have or display signs of ADHD, however once safely away from the domestic violence this can often disappear or improve.
Behavioural and social
- constantly seek attention
- display similar behaviours to children diagnosed with ADHD, however these lessen or disappear when they have been removed from the domestic violence.#
- seek pain and engage in self-harm, make unsuccessful or successful suicide attempts
- be fearful and feel constant anxiety about potential dangers and the safety of loved ones
- wet the bed, have nightmares, be afraid to go to sleep, or sleep often
- not want to sleep at friends' houses or stay away from home often or for long periods
- be nervous, withdrawn, restless, hyper-vigilant and inattentive
- have poor impulse control and low frustration tolerance
- act out and become violent themselves, use aggressive language and be excessively cruel to animals or younger children
- become a victim of bullying or use bullying, abuse and threats to get their own way
- use drugs and alcohol
- have poor boundaries, difficulty in maintaining appropriate age and sexual boundaries
- become involved in juvenile delinquency and adult criminal acts such as stealing, assaults and vandalism
- become involved in inappropriate intimate relationships for their age and development, or become pregnant as a teenager.
Cognitive and emotional
- become fearful and withdrawn, perceiving the world around them as a hostile place and wishing to avoid drawing attention to themselves. This may lead to further victimisation and bullying by other children at home, at school or in the community because they are too scared to assert or defend themselves
- exhibit mood and personality changes including emotional numbing, lack of confidence, poor self-esteem, poor self-image and feelings of worthlessness and helplessness
- suffer from constant sadness, depression, PTSD or eating disorders and psychosomatic illnesses
- have nightmares and sleeping difficulties
- suffer intrusive and obsessive thoughts.
Children who experience domestic violence over a long period of time may adopt strategies that help them deal with the violence at home.
Behavioural and social
- feel an emotional disconnection, learning not to hear the violence. They may experience emotional numbing or blocking thoughts
- use alcohol or drugs
- demonstrate inappropriate affectionate behaviour to people they have just met
- plan or fantasise about revenge on the perpetrator, about a happier life after the abuser leaves, or even about living with another family. Younger children might hope for rescue by a superhero, police or prince charming figure
- practise avoidance, by leaving the room or the house during the violent episode. They might find excuses to avoid or delay going home or even run away from home
- seek love and acceptance in the wrong places. They may take up with inappropriate friends, have sex for the intimacy and closeness it offers, or try to become pregnant as a way to get away from their home or have someone to love them
- take charge, protecting their siblings and nurturing them like a surrogate parent, or even nurturing the abused parent
- reach out for help from a teacher, neighbour, friend’s mother, other supportive adults or the police
- seek attention and assistance through suicidal gestures and self-harm. They might also lash out in anger or be aggressive and fight with others
- divert feelings into positive activities such as sport, creative writing, acting, art or music, or striving for academic excellence
- display diminished social skills, finding it difficult to form and maintain friendships. On the other hand, they may have highly developed social and communication skills
- have problems with trusting people and consequently form poor relationships. They may ‘test out’ others. They may avoid inviting friends to their home and be wary of attending parties and other social events
- play parents off against one another to get their material needs met
- may encourage their mother to leave the abuser
- experience welfare dependency and homelessness.
Children may show poor school performances, or occupational and employment difficulties (unemployment and underemployment). They might even refuse to go to school in order to be able to protect their mother or siblings. As a result of this, they may leave school early and not want to continue their studies.
Many children who experience domestic violence have attended numerous schools and have fallen behind in their school work. They lose confidence, are unable to keep up with their age appropriate school work or friends, so act out and keep falling further behind, and may not want to go to school .
They may also be disorganised and have difficulties completing activities or tasks, and avoid their primary caregivers.