SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — A growing body of research shows that children don’t have to be abused themselves to suffer the consequences of domestic violence: Watching it happen to someone else is problem enough. It’s estimated 3-10 million children witness domestic violence each year, according to the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence. A study by the Department of Health and Human Services—The Child Welfare Information Gateway(CWIG)—estimates 10-20% of children are at risk.
Children who are exposed to domestic violence are at risk for a number of problems. In fact, Dr. Melissa M. Stiles, M.D. notes these children are more likely to develop “externalized behaviors such as fighting, bullying, lying, or cheating” and “internalized behaviors such as anxiety and depression.” They can also demonstrate regressive behaviors (like thumb sucking or bed-wetting) or intense irritability (such as stuttering, crying, or clinging). These children can even develop physical symptoms, including irregular eating habits, difficulty sleeping, headaches, and stomach pain.
These emotional setbacks often develop into cognitive and attitudinal problems, according to the CWIG. Children who have been exposed are more likely to fall behind in school, turn to violence to resolve conflict in their lives, and internalize gender stereotypes.
And the effects can last well into the child’s adulthood. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) reports “boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults,” and the CWIG adds that girls who witness parental violence “are more likely to be victims” themselves in their adulthood.
Not every child exposed to domestic violence experiences the same effects. According to the CWIG, the more severe and frequent the violence is, the more detrimental to the child. Their age also plays a key role: Younger children are not as developmentally equipped to understand and cope with abuse, so their problems may be more severe or chronic. The amount of time that has passed since the violent event also matters. The child’s levels of anxiety and fear are usually highest immediately after the violence, and then lessen with time.
However, some factors are actually protective against these side effects. The CWIG suggests children who are intelligent, confident, and outgoing tend to fair better than their introverted or self-conscious peers. So, if a child has supportive relationships with their siblings, classmates, or non-abusive adults, those bonds can serve as a strong line of defense against the impacts of domestic violence.
Because domestic violence was long considered a taboo topic, research on its impact on children was limited. However, there is a growing body of evidence surrounding domestic violence, its effects, and its prevalence. Dr. Stiles believes people are becoming more aware of domestic violence. With concern about the public health implications rising, the research is expanding to include the effects of secondary victims, such as the children witnessing abuse at home.