How Exposure To Domestic Violence Affects Brain Development in Children | Domestic Violence Awareness Month

Children exposed to domestic violence, though not physically abused, do experience mental trauma.

Robyn Chittister October 17, 2016
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When we think of domestic violence, we think of two adults, usually a man assaulting his partner, although women abuse their partners as well. According to the CDC, one in four women and one in seven men experience severe physical domestic violence in their lifetime. When abuse occurs between adults, people may not realize the impact that witnessing this abuse has on children. They think that children are affected only by child abuse, and that simply witnessing a parent or caregiver being abused is irrelevant.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence was created and designed to determine the effect of domestic and community violence. The study found that 5.8% of children witnessed an assault between parents, 8.4% of children saw a family member assault another person within the past year, and 25% had seen a family member assault another person in their lifetime.

Witnessing violence literally changes a child’s brain. Many of us already know that stress produces cortisol, which adversely affects brain function. Exposure to violence causes chronic stress, fear, and anxiety, which are toxic to the brain and impairs brain development. Consequently, consistent, early exposure to domestic violence can lead to learning disabilities, behavioral issues, and physical and mental health problems. Children who witness domestic violence may also perform poorly in school. They may have an inability to concentrate and be unable to complete school work.

Witnessing domestic violence is traumatic. When that violence is chronic, it affects children’s emotional, mental, and physical health. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, short-term effects of witnessing domestic violence include:
- Anxiety
- Difficulty concentrating
- Increased aggression

Long-term effects include:
- Behavioral problems, including juvenile delinquency and alcohol and drug abuse
- Emotional difficulties, including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

In the report “Children’s Exposure to Violence,” Child Trends asserts:

“Children who are exposed to violence are more likely to suffer from attachment problems, regressive behavior, anxiety, and depression, and to have aggression and conduct problems. Other health-related problems, as well as academic and cognitive problems, delinquency, and involvement in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, are also associated with experiences of violence.”

Children who witness domestic violence learn from their observations. They may believe that it is only natural for adults to behave this way. Thus, a young girl who sees her father abuse her mother may find herself an abusive partner later in life. Boys who witness their fathers abusing their mothers may be more likely to abuse their partners as well.

A person may stay with an abusive partner because that partner “doesn’t hit the kids.” Some states will not intervene in cases of domestic violence if the kids are not being abused. Although clearly, even witnessing domestic violence is traumatic and life changing for children. The psychological damage inflicted by domestic violence often perpetuates more violence.

If you, your parent, or another person you know may be a victim of domestic violence, there is help available. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is accessible 24/7 at 1-800-799-7233 or via Live Chat from 7:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. Central time.

Other resources include:
Child Welfare Information Gateway, Impact of Domestic Violence on Children and Youth
National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence, Bibliography
National Network to End Domestic Violence

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

If you find yourself in an abusive situation and cannot see a way out, please know that there IS help available to you. There are others who understand and will not judge. They will be there with you every step of the way. Please call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or visit http://www.thehotline.org for more information. You are worth it.

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Robyn Chittister

Robyn is a full-time writer and mom through private, domestic, open, transracial adoption. She resides in New Hampshire with her family of two adults, two children, and a fluctuating number of animals. She is seriously passionate about adoption and tries to use her words wisely--both here and at her personal blog, Holding to the Ground.


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