It's Not Just About Us - Effects Of Domestic Violence On Children


When thinking about the dynamics and effects of domestic violence, it is easy to focus on the two parties involved. However, even if they are "just" watching, the effects on the children can be just as profound and long lasting. There are six types of domestic violence, and they are as follows:

1. Physical abuse
2. Verbal or nonverbal abuse (psychological abuse, mental abuse, emotional abuse)
3. Sexual abuse
4. Stalking or cyber stalking
5. Economic abuse or financial abuse
6. Isolation

In all of the above subtypes, children can be witness to, or suffer directly from the actions of the perpetrator. Statistics on abuse are almost impossible to quantify, but looking at child abuse reports and numbers of D.V. cases that are reported through the legal system, a safe estimate is that over 4 million kids each year witness a severe incident of family violence. Statistics also show that between 35-50% of divorcing families experience some minor violence during the break up process.

Six Tactics Abusers Use When Dealing with Children

There are 6 basic tactics used by the abusers when dealing with their children and many children will continue to seek out these types of familiar patterns in relationships if they do not get help to understand the cycle of power and control used in their family.

  1. Being an authoritarian parent. "If your children aren't a little afraid of you, they won't respect you." These abusers generally stick to bad parenting decisions even after it becomes apparent that they aren't working.
  2. The under involved abuser. This person generally wants the status of "parent", but tends to lose interest quickly when it comes to the hardships and sacrifices. Initially, this may make the parent a scarce commodity, and more valuable to the children.
  3. The neglectful and irresponsible parent. This person's self-centeredness, disrespect, arrogance and manipulativeness rule the day. These parents may make and break promises on a regular basis.
  4. The one who constantly undermines the other parent in a malicious way, even when the consequences are hurtful to the children.
  5. The parent who demands that the children are just like them. They seek a narcissistic reflection in their children, and do not value them for any individual differences. The last type is the abuser who is omnipotent and believes that he/she knows everything and makes all of the decisions.

Children exposed to these types of parents generally feel more venerable and insecure and that there is nobody to make their world safe. They become use to their parents fighting and arguing rather than reasoning, so the children get involved in more power struggles. As adults, these children may be more hyper-vigilant in social situations. Terrorism, earthquakes or other disasters will impact them more.

This is due to them having a heightened state of arousal. When they experienced abuse in a violent family that had little cause or warning and was very on and off, these children suffer more than when the abuse was more predictable and ended. If the domestic violence involved physical abuse, these children are more likely to be violent. They exhibit more anxiety, anger and problems with self-esteem. They are more likely to experience school problems and health problems. As teens and adults, children exposed to violence may be more likely to become abusive. Some of these children may become more fearful, inhibited and withdrawn.

This partial list clearly indicates the scope of the problem for children who are in a family where domestic violence is prevalent. Early intervention, having other supportive adults in their lives, outside sports or hobbies and being encouraged to interact with same aged peers are some mediating factors for these kids. Additionally, being in psychotherapy can help children and their parents understand the range of effects and impact on each family member.

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE
California Alliance Against Domestic Violence:
Bancroft, L. (2004). When Dad hurts Mom: Helping your children heal the wounds of witnessing abuse. New York, NY: Berkley Books.
Stahl, P. (2000). Parenting after divorce: A guide to resolving conflicts and meeting your children's needs.
Atascadero, CA: Impact Publishing Inc.
Weitzman, S. (2000). Not to people like us: Hidden abuse in upscale marriages. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Article written by Dr. Linda Bortell. Dr. Bortell is a licensed psychologist located in South Pasadena. She has been in practice for 15 years and specializes in childhood trauma and high-conflict divorce.

Linda Bortell, Psy.D.
625 Fair Oaks Ave. Suite 270
South Pasadena, CA 91030
FAX: 626.441.4893