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The Effects of Intimate Partner Violence on Children

Witnessing intimate partner violence (IPV) in the household can have a significant impact on the emotional and physical wellbeing of children. They often feel a sense of shame or guilt that they are unable to stop the violence from happening. In some cases, they may have a mistaken belief that they cause the violence to happen in some way.

It is normal for a child who has witnessed IPV to show a variety of symptoms in response to the trauma. Some common responses can be seen below. Many can be observed in opposite extremes.

Physical

  • Frequent headaches, stomachaches, or other physical complaints
  • Bedwetting and nightmares
  • Fatigue and lethargy
  • Poor personal hygiene
  • Desensitization to pain

Emotional

  • Shame, guilt and self-blame – “I caused it” or “I should have been able to stop it”
  • Grief for family and personal losses
  • Confusion about conflicting feelings toward parents
  • Fear of abandonment, of expressing emotions, of the unknown, and/or personal injury
  • Anger about violence and the chaos in their lives
  • Feelings of depression, helplessness and powerlessness
  • Embarrassment related to the dynamics at home
  • Uncertainty about what’s real
  • Anxiety that ordinary arguments will become scary

Behavioral

  • Aggression or withdrawal
  • Overachievement or underachievement
  • Refusal to go to school
  • Parentification, more concern for others than self
  • Avoiding confrontation by lying or pretending everything is OK
  • Rigid defenses (aloof, sarcastic, defensive, “black and white” thinking)
  • Out of control behavior, inability to set limits or follow directions
  • Manipulation, dependendency, mood swings
  • Developmental regression (thumb sucking, etc.), depends on age
  • Abusive towards self: eating disorders, substance abuse, suicide
  • Short attention span - frequently misdiagnosed ADHD

Social

  • Isolation from friends and relatives or strong craving for adult approval
  • Relationships are frequently stormy, start intensely and end abruptly
  • Difficulty trusting others, especially adults
  • Poor anger management and problem solving skills
  • Avoid home life through excessive social involvement (extracurricular activities, refusing to go home)
  • Passive towards peers or bullies
  • Play with peers gets exceedingly rough

Additionally, children may show different symptoms depending on their developmental stage. These examples may not apply to all children in all situations.

Infants/Toddlers Preschoolers School Age Adolescents
Behavioral Infants/Toddlers: Being fussy Preschoolers: Increased aggression and/or impulsive behaviors School Age: Being aggressive or very withdrawn, conduct problems, disobedience Adolescents: Antisocial behavior, delinquency, running away, extreme behaviors
Emotional Infants/Toddlers: Crying, intense separation anxiety Preschoolers: Intense anxiety, worries, and/or new fears, sadness, PTSD, inconsolable crying School Age: Fear and anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, guilt, shame, PTSD Adolescents: Depression, anxiety, anger, suicidal, embarrassed about home, PTSD
Physical Infants/Toddlers: Problems with sleeping and/or eating, growth stunts Preschoolers: Highly active, demanding, whiny, clingy School Age: Nightmares, sleep disruptions, physical complaints such as stomachaches or headaches Adolescents: Nightmares, poor hygiene, frequently ill, substance abuse, eating disorders
Cognitive Infants/Toddlers: Difficulty with learning and understanding, poor language acquisition Preschoolers: Loss of acquired skills, self-blame, limited understanding School Age: Difficulty with concentration and task completion (especially in school), pro-violent attitudes, self-blame Adolescents: Pro-violent attitudes, difficulty trusting people
Social Infants/Toddlers: Biting, hitting Preschoolers: Trouble interacting with peers and adults, ambivalent relationship with caregiver(s) School Age: Fewer and lower quality peer relationships, avoiding school and/or truancy Adolescents: Involved in violent or abusive relationships, lying to avoid confrontation

Even though the effects of domestic violence on children can be severe, the impact can be reduced through a number of strategies:

  1. Ensure their immediate safety. Limit their exposure to violence as much as possible.
  2. Consider professional counseling. Catalyst provides free, confidential counseling to children who have witnessed IPV at home. To learn more about these services, visit our counseling page or call 530-343-7711.
  3. Promote resiliency. Children who have experienced trauma often feel fearful and unsafe, both physical and emotionally. Click here for strategies you can use to offer support to your child.
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