When we talk about domestic/family violence, we only concentrate on the men, who in most cases are the assailants, and the women who are the victims. In most cases we neglect the children who are also part of these families and their lives are affected too.
Findings from several studies reveal that in 85- 90% of the time violence occurs in a domestic set up, children are always present. In 50% of such cases, children are directly involved and are abused in the course of the incident. These were the findings of Queensland Domestic Task Force in1998, by Cleaver et al, 1999, cited in Fleischer, 2000.
A child deserves special protection from the parents, and childhood, in western culture, is defined as the period of this special protection. For proper growth and development of a child, the environment should be perfectly conducive i.e. should be secure and supportive. In case of a perverted environment which is dominated by fear and violence, the normal growth and development process of the child must be distorted.
Research has found that if a child is exposed to violence, chances of regressive symptoms are likely to be very high. Such symptoms include language development problems (delayed), increased cases of bedwetting, and anxiety for separation from the parents. This is according to Osofsky, 1995, which is cited in Margolin and Gordis, 2000. These regressive symptoms affect the ability of a child in learning how to get along with others and also lower the concentration of the child in school.
Research evidence has strongly proved that domestic violence has adverse effects in the development of the child. According to Marshall and Watt, 1999; marital conflict is the strongest and most dangerous risk factor in the behavior of a child. It affects both external and internal behaviors and directly leads to social problems. Attention problems together with thought problems also occur when a child is exposed to parental conflict and violence. The more intense and frequent the conflict is, the more the behavioral problems.
According to Fantuzzo and Mohr, 1999; Margolin and Gordis, 2000; Edelson, 1999; and Goddard and Hiller, 1993; domestic violence is coupled with several risk factors which adversely affect the child’s growth and development. These risk factors include poverty, drug abuse, and the abuse of the child – both sexually and physically, the antisocial personality of the parents, conflicts in the parenting styles, and depression especially on the maternal side. It is estimated that physical abuse of the child is at 30-60% when domestic violence occur (Edelson, 1999).
The rate and level of parent-child violence may be low during domestic violence. However, if a child witnesses the violence, there are adverse and significant effects on the child’s adjustment. A child needs the feeling of safety and security more than the feeling of love and belonging.
It is true that if a child is horrified that he/she might be killed or hurt, such a child is left with little emotional feelings towards the parents. Witnessing of the attack of one parent against the other also adversely affects the child even though the child may not be in danger. This lowers the feelings of safety and security of the child.
In the subsequent paragraphs, I am going to analyze the effects of domestic violence to children in accordance with the age.
The impacts of domestic violence to a child begin as early as during pregnancy. Several women are exposed to domestic violence when they are pregnant. Science and research has it that if the maternal levels of cortisol hormone (stress hormone) is high during pregnancy, poor growth of the fetus results. This directly results into future development of diseases during adulthood and adversely affects brain development as there are delays in the brain growth and reduced quantity of the CNS (central nervous system) myelination. Myelination leads to childhood syndromes which are hyperactive e.g. ADD. Such a child is also deficient in the number of brain cells and is very vulnerable to chemicals and toxins (Quinlivan, 2000; p.57). Other effects of domestic violence include miscarriage, stillbirth and lower birth weights.
During infancy, the children are involved directly in domestic violence. In most cases, they act as a shield for their mothers and are hit by objects. In some cases, they are intentionally hurt or threatened so as to frighten the mother. Infants are very much sensitive to the surrounding environment, especially the emotional environment including depression, fear and angry mood of their caregivers.
At childhood, violence at home deprives the child the ability to develop the sense of security and trust. From research findings, children at the age of three years, who are exposed to such violence, may react to the anger of the adult with a lot of distress and aggression. The more distressed are the girls while boys are more aggressive (Margolin, 1998). At this age, the child is most likely to develop various problems including difficulties with class work and poor performance at school, psychosomatic disorders, school phobia, and attention and concentration difficulties (Cumming and Davies, 1994). Margolin and Gordis summarize the effects of domestic violence to children by reasoning that it affects the way children view themselves and the world in general. It affects children’s ideas about life including the purpose and meaning of life and their future expectations about life including happiness and moral development (Margolin and Gordis 2000; p.445; p.449).
The impacts of domestic violence on adolescents are dependent on whether the adolescent has been part of the system from his/her childhood or whether he/she experiences it for the first time. Girls who experience violence against their mothers during childhood are most likely to be depressed during adolescence (Spaccarelli, Roosa and Sandler, 1994). Adolescents in homes where domestic violence carries the day, may run away from home and become homeless. According to Kalmuss, 1984; Howard, 1995; and McInnes, 1995, domestic violence and the stresses linked with it may force an adolescent to take a risk and escape from home. These behaviors can worsen to an extent that these adolescents may grow to become very violent adults. In their families, they may be more violent and participate in domestic violence more than their parents.
As much as domestic violence is bad and very much harmful to the growth and development of children, we should not generalize its negative effects. As a society, a positive approach is very important. The question that we should be asking is about the protective factors and influences in the life of the child which lowers the effects of such violence. We should look at the factors that can increase the ability of the child to resist the adverse effects of domestic violence. Despite the experiences of domestic violence, children usually grow up and become well functioning and responsible adults (Humphreys and Mullender, 2000). From research findings, only 30% of the boys that are exposed to domestic violence grow up and become violent husbands and fathers. This means that a greater percentage of 70% of the boys who are exposed to such violence usually grow up and become nonviolent. The greatest question now is: How can the society attempt to reduce or minimize the dangerous effects of domestic violence to the children exposed to it? This will make the society to be greater and more important that we think it is.
Bunston, W, and Crean, H. Supporting children and young people affected by family violence: parents accepting responsibility – kids are safe (PARKAS), Victorian Government Department of Human Services: Melbourne. 1999.
Cleaver, H, et al. Children’s needs – parenting capacity: The impact of parental mental illness, problem alcohol and drug use, and domestic violence on children’s development, UK Department of Health. 1999.
Cummings, E M and Davies, P D. Children and marital conflict: The impact of family dispute and resolution, Guildford Press, New York. 1994.
Edelson, J L. ‘Children’s witnessing of adult domestic violence’, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 14, 8, 839-870. 1999.
Egeland, B, Carlson, E, and Sroufe, L A. ‘Resilience and process’, Development and Psychopathology, 5, 517-528. 1993.
Fantuzzo, J W, and Mohr, W K. ‘Prevalence and effects of child exposure to domestic violence’, The Future of Children, 9, 3, 21-32. 1999.
Kalmuss, D,. ‘The intergenerational transmission of marital aggression’, Journal of Marriage and the Family, 46, pp.11-19. 1984.
Laing, L. Children, young people and domestic violence, Australian Domestic and Family Violence Clearinghouse Issues Paper No.2. 2000
Margolin, G, and Gordis, E B. ‘The effect of family and community violence on children’, Annual Review of Psychology, 51, 445-479. 2000.
Marshall, J and Watt, P. Child Behaviour Problems: A Literature Review of the Size and Nature of the Problem and Prevention Interventions in Childhood, Perth, WA: The Interagency Committee on Children’s Futures. 1999.
Quinlivan, J. ‘Study of adolescent pregnancy in Western Australia’, The Way Forward, pp.53-58. 2000.
Spaccarelli, S, Sandler, I and Roosa, M. ‘History of spouse violence against mother: correlated risks and unique effects in child mental health, Journal of Family Violence, 9, 79-98. 1994.