Domestic violence impacts children differently at different ages

Learn how does domestic violence negatively impacts young children throughout different developmental and age periods.

Exposure to domestic violence negatively affects children. In order to understand these affects, it helps to understand the complexities of domestic violence. Domestic violence occurs across all groups of people – age, race, socioeconomical, educational, occupational and religious. Typically, it involves repeated patterns of abuse, including physical, psychological, emotional and economical abuse. It is used to gain power and control through the use of intimidation, humiliation and fear. Domestic violence is always caused by the perpetrator, never the victim.

With regards to young children, domestic violence affects them differently at different developmental stages. As children grow and develop, each age presents new learning tasks. Witnessing or hearing of a parent being harmed by their partner can threaten a child’s sense of security and interfere with normal healthy development. Children may begin to display emotional or behavioral problems, such as sleep disturbances, intensified startle reactions and constant worry about possible danger. Children become desensitized to aggressive behavior and begin to view aggressive, violent behavior as the norm. They may imitate and learn the negative, unhealthy, abusive attitudes and behaviors of the perpetrator of domestic violence.

Infants and toddlers
Infants and toddlers are learning how to form secure attachments and are learning through play and exploration. When exposed to domestic violence, infants and toddlers learn that parents may be incapable of consistently responding to their needs, which interferes with the development of a strong infant-parent bond. Children become fearful of exploring their world, which may interfere with play and subsequent learning.

Preschoolers are learning how to express all of their emotions, including those of aggression and anger. Living in a domestic violence situation can teach children unhealthy ways to express anger and aggression. They become confused with mixed messages of what they see versus what they are told. An example of such a mixed message occurs when children get spanked for hitting a sibling, and yet they see their parents hit each other. Preschoolers are beginning to learn about gender roles based on social messages. They may get the message that men are violent perpetrators and women are victims.

School-age children
School-age children have an increased sense of their own emotions and the emotions of others. They are more aware of their own reactions to violence and may worry about their mother being harmed or their father being taken to jail. A child between the ages of 6 -11 has their primary self-concept revolving around academic and social success. Their ability to learn may be compromised because of exposure to domestic violence. They may be distracted; miss hearing positive statements made by teachers and friends, and may pay more attention to negative responses. This age group is beginning to have complex thoughts about right and wrong. They are more susceptible to accepting inaccurate, unhealthy explanations heard to excuse violence; such as alcohol causes violence or that the victim deserves the abuse.

Child care providers and the general community can help support children exposed to domestic violence in several ways. Young children can benefit from supportive caregivers and safe places like child care or a school setting. Caregivers and teachers can provide a nurturing environment where children can rely on predictable routines. They can also provide parents with community support resources. Communities can help foster a sense of emotional well-being for all victims. They can hold perpetrators accountable through legal sanctions.

Children affected by domestic violence can benefit from a qualified family counselor or a child trauma specialist. Specialists can provide parents and caregivers with strategies to support the child’s needs. They can help the children directly by teaching them how to cope with traumatic stress and express emotions appropriately.

Children benefit when the positive relationships with significant people in their lives are maintained. These healthy contacts could include those with parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, aunts or uncles. In addition, support should involve the continuation of activities outside of the home that are important to that child, such as child care programs, faith-based youth programs and 4-H Youth Development programs.

Whether children witness, hear or later learn about a parent being harmed by a partner, there are negative impacts on that child. It is important to know ages and stages of development and how domestic violence can interfere with normal healthy development. Being sensitive to how children of different ages may be impacted by domestic violence can help parents, caregivers and teachers better understand what children are going through, so they can work together to help them cope.

This information on how caregivers and teachers can understand and support children exposed to domestic violence is available in a handbook titled, “Children Exposed to Domestic Violence: An Early Childhood Educator’s Handbook to Increase Understanding and Improve Community Responses” by Linda Baker, Peter Jaffe, Lynda Ashbourne and Janet Carter. 

In addition, there is a research article published titled, “Inter-parental violence: The pre-schooler’s perspective and the educator’s role.”

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