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The Impact of Domestic Abuse on Children, and Resources for Addressing Domestic Abuse

Breaking the Cycle of Violence

Taken From: Recommendation to Improve the Criminal Justice Response to Child Victims and Witnesses, June 1999, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs NCJ #176983

Children who are victims of or witnesses to violent crime are at an increased risk for delinquency, adult criminality, and violent behavior. National studies have shown that being abused or neglected as a child increases the likelihood of arrest as a juvenile by 53 percent and the likelihood of arrest for a violent crime as an adult by 38 percent.1 It also places children at significant risk for substance abuse, mental illness, and suicide.

Witnessing family violence appears to have both short- and long-term effects on children. Intervening in the lives of victimized children before negative patterns of behavior, low self-esteem, and damaged character are established may be the only real opportunity to prevent future violence in our streets and in our homes.

Children need to know that their lives and well-being are critically important to our society. Children need to know that their safety is a priority. Perpetrators need to know that their actions will have severe consequences.

Even when child witnesses do not suffer physical injury, the emotional consequences of viewing or hearing violent acts are severe and long-lasting. Children who witness violence may experience many of the same symptoms and lasting effects as children who are victims of violence themselves, including post-traumatic stress disorder.2

It is not uncommon for adults to minimize the impact on children witnessing violence and fail to provide appropriate care. Caretakers may mistakenly believe that young children will "forget" about the violent event if they are "left alone" and not reminded of it. On the contrary, children need to talk about what they saw and their perceptions of the consequences. Further, child victims and witnesses need to be free from intimidation and persuasion aimed at pressuring them to change their description of events.

While exact numbers are not available, it is clear that each year hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of children witness domestic violence and are present in many domestic violence incidents to which police agencies respond. It is estimated that physical abuse of children occurs in one-third to one-half of domestic violence situations involving abuse of the mother.

Children who are present during domestic violence are at increased risk for being murdered or physically injured. Children who are exposed to domestic violence experience feelings of terror, isolation, guilt, helplessness, and grief. Many children may complain of headaches, stomach problems, and other medical problems. Children can experience problems with depression, anxiety, embarrassment, and, if exposed to violence for an extended period of time, ambivalence.

Children act out what they see; their acts of violent behavior may be a result of their exposure to domestic violence. 3

Children who are present during a sexual assault are at significant risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder. Children may have recurrent and intrusive thoughts about the sexual assault and may reenact the event in repetitive play. Feeling a loss of control and the inability to protect their mothers may leave children feeling anxious, depressed, vulnerable, and angry. After witnessing a sexual assault, children may become more concerned with their own safety and may exhibit more anger and irritability than prior to the assault.4

1 Widom, C.S., "The Cycle of Violence," (Research in Brief), National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice, 1992.

2 Christianson, S. A., "Emotional Stress and Eyewitness Memory: A Critical Review," Psychological Bulletin, vol. 112, 1992.

3 Rhea, M. H., Chafey, K. H., Dohner, V. A., and Terragno, R., "The Silent Victims of Domestic Violence - Who Will Speak?" Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, vol. 9, no. 3, 1996.

4 Pynoos, R. S. and Nader, K., "Children Who Witness the Sexual Assaults of Their Mothers," Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, vol. 27, 1988.

Where to get help:

If you or someone you know is in danger, call 911 or your local police.

National Domestic Violence Hotline
1-800-799-SAFE (1-800-799-7233)
1-800-787-3224 (TTY)

Kansas Crisis Hotline
1-888-END-ABUSE (1-888-363-2287)

Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence
634 SW Harrison
Topeka, KS 66603
Phone: 785-232-9784 (voice and TTY)
FAX: 785-266-1874

Map of services near you

Domestic Violence Shelters

Domestic violence shelters are in communities statewide. Ask your local court or social service agency for one nearest you.

Legal Resources

Kansas Attorney General
Victim Services Division

Kansas Bar Association
Lawyer Referral Service
(800) 928-3111

Kansas Legal Services