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Family Violence: Effects on Children

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KEY POINTS

  • Family violence is a problem for everyone in the family, even if your child is not the victim.
  • The way that violence affects children depends, in part, on how severe the violence is and how often it happens. Children may get depressed or anxious, become disobedient and aggressive, or have physical symptoms.
  • There is only one way to protect your child: Stop the violence.

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What is family violence?

Family violence, also called domestic violence, is the abuse of one family member by another family member to gain power and control. The abuse can take many forms:

  • Physical abuse is an injury to your body. Abuse may include hitting, kicking, shaking, biting, throwing, stabbing, and choking. It may also include beating you with objects such as a cord or purposely burning you with hot water, cigarettes, or a stove.
  • Mental and emotional abuse includes swearing or threatening to hit you, insulting you, making fun of you, or calling you names. It also includes forcing you to do humiliating acts, threatening to hurt your children if you don't do what the abuser wants, or hurting or destroying property or pets.
  • Sexual abuse includes forcing you to have sex, hurting your breasts or genitals, or making you do sexual acts with other people or animals.

Family violence is a problem for everyone in the family, not just the victim. Family violence often goes along with alcohol or drug abuse. Usually the victims of violence are women. However, both men and women can be abusers and both can be victims. Being a loving parent is often hard for both the adult victim and the abuser.

How does family violence affect children?

Seeing or hearing violence between adults in the family has a greater negative effect on children than television, video games, and movies. The way that violence affects children depends, in part, on a child’s age, how severe the violence is, and how often it happens.

Possible effects on children include:

  • Babies may have more problems with feeding, play, and other daily activities. They may be very clingy or cry more. The fussiness can increase the risk that the baby will be a target of violence.
  • Children can blame themselves and feel guilty about causing the violence, even when they have no part in it.
  • Children often don’t feel safe. They wait for the next violent event to happen, always on guard.
  • Children may feel helpless and defenseless.
  • Older children may imitate the violence they see. Some children become aggressive, cruel, disobedient, and destructive. They may have a hard time getting along with siblings and other children.
  • Children may get sad, anxious, fearful, or withdrawn. They may not do well in school and may have delays in their development.
  • Children may have physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, or trouble sleeping.
  • Teens from violent homes often take more risks, like drinking, using drugs, or breaking the law.

The negative effects of family violence can last a lifetime. Children who grow up with family violence may have problems with relationships, substance abuse, or health problems as adults. Children may become violent adults or be victims of violence as adults.

How can I help my child?

The longer your child is exposed to violence, the greater the risk. There is only one way to protect your child: Stop the violence.

  • If you are being physically or sexually abused, call 911. Know that the abuser may need to go to jail or enter a treatment program.
  • Take your children and leave the abuser as soon as you can get away. Go to a safe place. Community family violence shelters can help create a plan for both the adult victim and the children.
  • Seeing a mental health therapist can help children and adults who live with family violence.

Building a strong bond with a caring, nonviolent parent is one of the best ways to help children grow in a positive way. Things you can do to help your children include:

  • Focus on their strengths to help build their self-esteem and feel good about themselves.
  • Let them know that you love them and that the violence is not their fault. Tell them that you will do everything you can to keep them safe.
  • Tell them that you know it’s hard and scary for them. Listen to them and talk about their feelings when they’re ready. Understand that they may not want to talk about it with you.
  • Teach them that violence is not okay. Help them learn other ways to handle anger.
  • Teach your children how to contact trusted friends and relatives if needed. Also teach your child how to call 911 for help.

Where can I get help?

Many states have toll-free, 24-hour domestic violence hotlines. Look online or in your local telephone book to find one in your area. You can get more information from:

Developed by Change Healthcare.
Pediatric Advisor 2019.4 published by Change Healthcare.
Last modified: 2019-08-09
Last reviewed: 2019-08-07
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2018 Change Healthcare LLC and/or one of its subsidiaries
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