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Kids really do think they’re superheroes. They actually believe they have the power to stop fighting, end divorce and bring eternal happiness to their parents. I’ve never been so humbled in my work as a therapist than when I listen to children talk about their perceived ability to make change, and “love” their way out of any situation for their parents.
When it comes to counseling a child who has witnessed domestic violence, it’s no different. On one hand, these kids are so resilient, and on the other hand, their innocence is being taken away from them. But there are significant long-term health consequences to cope with, too.
One in 15 children are exposed to domestic violence (DV) or intimate partner violence (IPV) each year, and 90% of these children bear witness to it directly. It’s almost impossible to prevent a child from being exposed to domestic violence when it’s in their home environment. They intuit the dynamics, feel the energy and learn to walk on eggshells. A child just knows.
Though parents’ efforts to shelter them from the situation can help. Research has shown that the non-abusing parent is often the strongest protective factor in the lives of children who are exposed to domestic violence.
They say when you become a mother to one child, you become a mother to the world’s children.
So this is my first ask: That we begin to see domestic violence and IPV as an issue we all need to be educated on, no matter if it impacts us directly or not, so we can help the next generation of our society grow up as healthy and happy as possible. DV/IPV and child abuse is not a “me” problem; it’s a “we” problem.
Here’s how domestic violence affects kids
Exposure to domestic violence is a form of childhood trauma known as an adverse childhood event (ACE), and understanding its long-term impacts is important.
- Children who experience childhood trauma, including witnessing incidents of domestic violence, are at greater risk of health or substance issues as an adult, including tobacco use, substance abuse, obesity, cancer, heart disease, depression and a higher risk for unintended pregnancy.
- Stress from ACEs can have negative effects on children’s brain development, immune systems and stress-response systems, affecting attention, learning and decision-making.
- Witnessing abuse carries the same risk of harm to children's mental health as being abused directly.
- Children who live in a home with domestic violence/IPV are at greater risk for repeating the cycle as adults by entering into abusive relationships or becoming abusers themselves. They can also pass the trauma onto their own children.
Spotting the signs of DV/IPV in kids
While some children or teenagers might show signs of the trauma they’re enduring at home, others may not, which can make identifying it challenging. However, there are some common signs to look out for.
- Preschoolers: You might notice a regression in their behaviors such as frequent bedwetting, thumb-sucking or whining. They also might have trouble falling and staying asleep, have a change in appetite or be exceptionally clingy in separations from their caregivers.
- School-aged children: They might show an increase in guilt as they begin to feel responsible for their parents’ relationship. Trauma can also impact a child’s self-esteem, therefore you might notice a change in their friends group, school activities or grades. They might get in more trouble at school or pick fights with siblings or friends. Some children report feeling sick or having stomach issues.
- Teenagers: Similar to school-aged children, teens might present differently in their relationships with friends and family, often starting fights or bickering. They might struggle in school with their grades or skip school all together. In addition, teenagers might engage in riskier behavior such as having unprotected sex, or using drugs or alcohol. Mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, also increase for those who have experienced domestic violence/IPV at home.
Here’s my last ask: It’s easy to look at a child or teen that is “acting out” or picking fights at school and think, “What's wrong with them?” Yet we need to see them through the lens of trauma and ask instead, “What’s happened to them?” We need to dig deeper to understand that their behavior is most likely a reaction to something they have experienced. Remember, there are no bad kids.
How can I help a child or teen who has experienced DV/IPV?
- Assess their safety right away. This means ensuring, to the best of your ability, that they are safe to return home. You can call a DV helpline 24/7 for additional safety planning and always call 911 in cases of emergency.
- Listen to them and believe them. Help them feel safe; emotionally and physically.
- Remind them the DV/IPV is not their fault or their responsibility to “fix”. Give them the space to talk about their feelings, fears and hopes.
- Help them find a reliable support system like a trained DV therapist. Let their school and any other social organizations know of the situation, so that those safe adults can be on the lookout for changes in their behavior too.
- Never give up on them. Be the adult in their life that models a healthy relationship for them by talking about boundaries and red flags while showing them unconditional love.
Related: Domestic violence resources
A note from Motherly
Every child deserves to feel and be safe. If you’re concerned that you or your child are experiencing domestic violence or intimate partner violence, reach out to the organizations listed below who can help you explore your options so that you can do what you need to do to feel safe.
Where to find help
If you or someone you know is struggling with domestic abuse, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline to chat with a trained advocate or call 1-800-799-7233 or text START to 88788. If you are in crisis, text HOME to 741741. If you are in need of immediate help, call 911.