Effects of exposure to domestic violence on children


Domestic violence is a red flag in divorces, not only for the safety of the partner who is the victim, but for that of the children as well. At times, before a couple even decides to file for divorce, emotions may become charged, causing tempers to flare unexpectedly. That, in turn, may escalate to become verbal and even physical attacks. Studies reveal that millions of children are exposed to domestic violence each year. Witnessing parents in a full-blown argument is overwhelming for most children, especially when things get physical. Witnessing violence is unfortunately common, but its impact can be profound. Without mature coping mechanisms or the experience to deal rationally with confrontational behavior, children can succumb to the intense pain of their feelings.

People are shaped by their genetics as well as their experiences. The effect that parental verbal and physical abuse have on children and the magnitude of that effect is not explicitly understood. Even so, comprehending the intricacies of how domestic violence and parental fighting effects children’s mental health, and their ability to manage their behavior (especially in difficult circumstances) are issues that are of deep concern to us. Integrated into the legal consultations that we have with our clients is a discussion about how domestic violence effects the mental and emotional well-being of children. We want to help parents understand that how they handle their differences is being picked up by and effecting their children. Invariably, there is a “trickle-down” effect. We encourage our clients to monitor their own behavior, and their words, especially when children are present. We remind our clients that their children’s health and their ability to deal with their life events are at stake.

A review of several scientific research studies concerning the effects of domestic violence on the health and developmental well-being of children was performed, and the findings were reported in the February 2008 issue of ScienceDirect. Three scientists, Stephanie Holt, Helen Buckley, and Sadhbh Whelan, collaborated to gain insights and understand the relationship between exposure to domestic violence and children’s behavior and development. The scientists looked at behavioral studies over an 11-year period (1995-2006) and analyzed the related data. The studies were organized and analyzed in an attempt to shed light on how exposure to domestic violence was related to: (1) Child and adolescent development; (2) Incidences of child abuse; (3) Other forms of child adversities; and (4) Related issues.

Using statistical tests, researchers have been able to demonstrate that children and adolescents who live with domestic violence have: (1) An increased risk of developing emotional and behavioral problems; (2) An increased risk of experiencing emotional, physical and sexual abuse; (3) An increased exposure to the presence of other adversities in their lives; (4) Poor school performance; and (5) Sleep disorders. On the other hand, studies showed that if a child had a strong relationship with and an attachment to a caring adult the long-term negative effects on the child were less severe.

The researchers concluded that children and young people may be significantly effected by living with domestic violence, and the impact of that experience can carry over even after they have been moved to a safe environment. The problems which ensue can be debilitating and long-lasting. The value of timely and appropriate intervention (e.g., a caring adult) can help children cope and heal. Assistance that is holistic and specific to the child’s experiences and needs can have beneficial long-term life-affirming affects.

We encourage parents to help their children through the process of healing from exposure to domestic violence, oftentimes with outside support, in order to monitor their children’s progress and give them the resources they need. This facilitates the children’s growth and development so that they, too, can move forward on stronger footing.

Irwin & Irwin Family Law has the resources and experience to provide guidance to our clients so that their children can be helped, and provided whatever they need to help deal with their emotional trauma, and discover ways to move their lives to a place of wellness and resilience.




2) “The Effects of Systemic Family Violence on Children’s Mental Health,” McCloskey, Figueredo, Koss, University of Arizona, 2002.

3) American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2014