One need not look far to find domestic violence in the lives of children. A child’s first experience of human interaction typically occurs at home, in a positive, nurturing, and loving context. However, home is also the place where a child’s first exposure to violence is likely to occur.
Violence at home is one of the most pervasive human rights challenges of our time. It remains a largely hidden problem that few countries, communities, or families openly confront. Violence in the home is not limited by geography, ethnicity, or status but it is a global phenomenon.
Although violence is especially harmful during the first years of life, it affects the physical safety as well as the emotional and cognitive well-being of the child at all stages of its development.
What do children need?
First and foremost, children need a safe and secure home, free of violence, and parents that love and protect them. They need to have a sense of routine and stability, so that when things go wrong in the outside world, home is a place of comfort, help and support. For too many children, home is far from a safe haven. Every year, hundreds of millions of children are exposed to domestic violence at home, and this has a powerful and profound impact on their lives and their hopes for the future. These children not only watch one parent violently assaulting another, they often hear the distressing sounds of violence or may be aware of it from many telltale signs.
Worldwide, 1 in 4 children under age five – 177 million – are living with a mother who is a victim of intimate partner violence
Many suffer in silence and are unsupported. Children who are exposed to domestic violence need trusted adults to turn to for help and comfort, and services to guide and assist them through their experiences. Much more must be done to protect these children and to prevent domestic violence from occurring.
In almost all countries there is limited data on domestic violence and even less information is available on the number of children who may be exposed to such violence. Some countries don't even have any data. Studies conducted on this topic often acknowledge that their findings are limited by the lack of reports of domestic violence, both by the abusive parent and by children living in the home.
275 million children worldwide are exposed to violence at home
This range is a rough estimate and based on the limitations of the available data. In reality, many more children can be affected by violence in the home. The most comprehensive data collected on this topic was compiled by the National Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence (NATSCEV), sponsored by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Researchers surveyed 4,549 children and young people aged 17 and under between January and May 2008. The results showed that more than 11% of children and young people were exposed to some form of family violence in the last year, and 26% he was exposed to at least one form of family violence during his lifetime.
Impact of Domestic Violence on Children
Children who have been exposed to domestic violence are more likely than their peers to experience a wide range of difficulties, and the potential effects vary by age and developmental stage.
Infants and small children who are exposed to violence in the home experience so much added emotional stress that it can harm the development of their brains and impair cognitive and sensory growth. Behaviour changes can include excessive irritability, sleep problems, emotional distress, fear of being alone, immature behaviour, and problems with toilet training and language development.
At an early age, the brain is "programming" for later physical and emotional functioning. As they grow older, children exposed to violence may continue to show signs of trouble. Children of primary school age may have more problems with homework and show poor concentration and tend to not do well academically in school. Personality and behavioral problems among children exposed to domestic violence can take the form of psychosomatic illnesses such as depression, suicidal tendencies, and bed-wetting. Some studies suggest that the development of social skills is also impaired when the child is exposed to domestic violence from an early age.
Some children lose the ability to empathize with others. Others feel socially isolated, unable to make friends so easily due to social discomfort or confusion about what is acceptable. Many studies have shown that children living in violent homes show signs of more aggressive behavior and are up to three times more likely to be involved in fights.
Protecting children against violence is a path towards more peaceful and inclusive societies. It will take individual and collective action to right this global wrong
Additional factors that influence the impact of domestic violence on children
Nature of violence: Children who witness frequent and serious forms of violence or who do not observe their caregivers resolve the conflict in a peaceful and cordial manner may experience more distress than children who witness fewer incidents of physical violence and experience positive interactions with their caregivers.
Child's age: Younger children appear to exhibit higher levels of emotional and psychological distress than older children. Age-related differences can result from older children's more developed cognitive abilities, which help them better understand violence and select various coping strategies to alleviate bothersome symptoms.
Time since exposure: Children often have elevated levels of anxiety and fear immediately after a violent event. Fewer observable effects are seen in children as time passes after the violent event.
Gender: in general, boys exhibit more externalized behaviors (eg, aggression and bad behavior), while girls exhibit more internalized behaviors (eg, withdrawal and depression).
Presence of child physical or sexual abuse: Children who witness domestic violence and are physically or sexually abused have a higher risk of emotional and psychological maladjustment than children who do not witness violence and who are not abused.
What are the long-term effects of domestic violence on children?
Exposure to domestic violence is one of several Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that has been shown to be a risk factor for many of the most common causes of death in the United States, including abuse. alcohol, drug use, smoking, obesity, among others.
More than 15 million children in the United States live in households where domestic violence has occurred at least once. These children are at greater risk of repeating the cycle as adults by entering into abusive relationships or by becoming abusers themselves. For example, a boy who sees his mother being abused is 10 times more likely to abuse his female partner as an adult. A girl who grows up in a home where her father abuses her mother is six times more likely to be sexually abused than a girl who grows up in a home without abuse.
Can children recover from witnessing or experiencing domestic violence?
Each child responds differently to abuse and trauma. Some children are more resilient, and some are more sensitive. How successful a child is at recovering from abuse or trauma depends on several things, including having:
✽ A good support system or good relationships with trusted adults.
✽ High self-esteem.
✽ Healthy friendships.
Although children will probably never forget what they saw or experienced as a child in a violent home environment, they can learn healthy ways to deal with their emotions and memories as they mature. The sooner a child receives help, the better their chances of becoming a mentally and physically healthy adult.
However, not all children exposed to domestic violence will experience negative effects. Some children show tremendous resilience. Protective factors such as social competence, intelligence, high self-esteem, and a supportive relationship with an adult (especially a non-abusive parent) can help protect children from the adverse effects of exposure to domestic violence.
Strategies to prevent domestic violence
It is important to work with State Domestic Violence Coalitions and local domestic violence programs to ensure an understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence, how abusive parents affect children, and how to support the physical and emotional safety of both children and nonabusive parents.
✽ Raising awareness about the impact of domestic violence on children: Much can be changed by bringing this problem to light. The message must be that domestic violence is harmful to everyone, especially children who are exposed to it, and that it can be stopped. Customs that validate domestic violence and discount its impact on children must be challenged. Adults who work with children, including teachers, social workers, family members, and parents themselves, need the skills to recognize and meet the needs of children exposed to domestic violence and refer them to appropriate services. Close, trusting relationships can also help children reduce the stress of living in a violent home. Children who are exposed to violence in the home should know that they are not alone and that the violence is not their fault. Children must learn that domestic violence is wrong and become familiar with non-violent methods of conflict resolution.
✽ Create public policies and laws that protect children: Governments carry primary responsibility for ensuring that children and women are safe and secure in their homes, and can take several key steps to ensure this. Interventions that support children who are exposed to domestic violence are crucial in minimizing long-term harm. School-based programs can reduce aggression and violence by helping children to develop positive attitudes and values, and a broader range of skills to avoid violent behavior. Public education and awareness-raising campaigns on domestic violence should focus more on the impact on children and specific ways to address this hidden problem. Legislation and policies must reinforce the message that domestic violence is a crime, that perpetrators will be punished and victims protected. These policies must focus on the protection of children and address the impact of violence in the home on children. Criminalizing domestic violence sends a clear message that violence is not a private matter and is unacceptable. It is essential that protective laws are enforced and offenders held accountably. Courts and government departments must have specialized policies in place to address the safety of adult victims of domestic violence and their children, including in connection with custody and visitation rights. Protective policies put in place by governments must be matched by efforts to change attitudes and traditions which condone abuse. As long as the violence in the home is shrouded in silence, the violence will continue.