Effects of Domestic Violence on Children
last updated April 2010

Children living in families where domestic violence occurs may be exposed to intimate partner violence and abuse in a number of ways. They may be direct witnesses to abuse, may suffer harm incidental to the domestic abuse, may have their lives disrupted by moving or being separated from parents, may be used by the batterer to manipulate or gain control over the victim, and they themselves are more likely to be abused. Exposure to domestic violence is widespread internationally and it is associated with other forms of child maltreatment, according to a 2006 UNICEF World Report on Violence Against Children.
Children may be direct witnesses to domestic violence, often seeing abusive incidents or hearing violence as it happens in their homes and families. As witnesses, children may be considered secondary victims and can be harmed psychologically and emotionally. According to a study published in 2003, over 15 million children in the U.S. lived in families where intimate partner violence had occurred at least once in the past year, and seven million children live in families in which severe partner violence occurred. From: Whitfield, Anda, Dube, & Felittle (2003), Violent Childhood Experiences and the Risk of Intimate Partner Violence in Adults: Assessment in a Large Health Maintenance Organization.
A 2007 study in the U.S. found that in 38% of incidents of intimate partner violence which involve female victims, children under age 12 were residents of the household. From: Catalano & Shannan (2007). Intimate Partner Violence in the United States.
Children can be displaced by the domestic violence when they seek shelter along with their abused parent. While statistics are not available globally, many shelters take in children as well as their abused parent. According to a study of domestic violence shelters and services in the U.S., in a single day in 2008, 16,458 children were living in a domestic violence shelter or transitional housing facility, while an additional 6,430 children sought services at a non-residential program. From: The National Network to End Domestic Violence, (2009). Domestic Violence Counts 2008: A 24-hour Census of Domestic Violence Shelters and Services.
The U.S. government’s Child Welfare Information Gateway provides a review of some research about the effects of domestic violence on children. Studies indicate that child witnesses, on average, are more aggressive and fearful and more often suffer from anxiety, depression and other trauma-related symptoms when compared to children who have not witnessed abuse or been abused. Children growing up in violent homes often feel they are responsibile for the abuse and may feel guilty because they think they caused it or because they are unable to stop it. They live with constant anxiety that another beating will occur or that they will be abandoned. They may feel guilty or confused for loving the abuser or getting mad at the victim. Children may be at a higher risk of alcohol or drug abuse, experience cognitive problems or stress-related ailments (headaches, rashes), and have difficulties in school. The Family Violence Prevention Fund offers a good overview of facts related to how children can be affected by domestic violence, and provides many additional resources.
A 2005 study of low-income pre-school children in the U.S. state of Michigan found that nearly half of the children in the study had been exposed to at least one incident of mild or severe violence in the family. Those children who had been exposed to violence suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as bed-wetting or nightmares, and were at greater risk than their peers of having allergies, asthma, gastrointestinal problems, headaches and flu. From: Graham-Bermann & Seng (2005).Violence Exposure and Traumatic Stress Symptoms as Additional Predictors of Health Problems in High-Risk Children.
The effects of witnessing domestic violence appear to diminish with time, as long as the violence ends or they are no longer exposed to it, but the impact can continue through adulthood. As adults, child witnesses may continue to suffer from depression, anxiety and trauma-related symptoms, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Even two decades ago, research by Strauss and colleagues indicated that boys who witness domestic violence were more likely to batter their partners as adults and abuse their own children. From: Strauss, Gelles, & Smith, (1990). Physical Violence in American Families: Risk Factors and Adaptations to Violence in 8,145 Families. [out of print]
In Problems Associated with Children's Witnessing of Domestic Violence, Jeff Edleson (1999), an expert on children and domestic violence and batterers' intervention programs, provides a more in-depth discussion of some of the ways in which children's health can be affected by witnessing domestic violence. Edleson reviewed nearly 100 studies that reported behavioral, emotional, cognitive and long-term problems that are statistically associated with a child's witnessing of domestic violence.
Research has also shown that there is a strong correlation or overlap between child abuse and domestic abuse.  Additional reviews of the research by Edleson (1999) and others have indicated that there is approximately a 50% overlap between domestic violence and child maltreatment. Children may be inadvertently or accidentally hurt through incidents of domestic violence. They may be hit by items thrown by the batterer, and older children, in particular, may be hurt trying to protect their mother. At least one study, published in 2003, indicated that the more severe the abuse against the mother, the more likely a child is to attempt to intervene in an incident.  From: Edleson, Mbilinyi, Beeman, & Hagemeister. (2003). How children are involved in adult domestic violence: Results from a four city telephone survey.
A 1998 literature review reported that between 45% and 70% of children who are exposed to domestic violence are also victims of abuse, and that 40% of child victims of abuse are also exposed to domestic violence. From: Levey, Steketee & Keilitz (2000) Lessons Learned in Implementing an Integrated Domestic Violence Court: The District of Columbia Experience.
Babies are also impacted by domestic violence especially when violence happens to women during pregnancy. For example, a 2005 multi-country study on domestic violence against women conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that 11% to 44% of ever-abused ever-pregnant women reported being assaulted during pregnancy.
According to Lundy Bancroft, among others, children are sometimes used by batterers to manipulate or spy on their victims, becoming a tool for the abusive partner. A batterer may threaten to take custody of or kidnap the children if the victim reports the abuse; he may also threaten to harm or kill the children. In addition, a batterer often insults and demeans his victim’s parenting of the children. He may also tell her that she will lose custody if she seeks help or tries to get a divorce because she "allowed" the abuse to happen. He may even harm the children in order to control their mother. During and after separation, batterers continue to use these tactics. Unsupervised visitation and joint custody, in particular, provide the batterer with opportunities to abuse, threaten and intimidate their former partners even when no longer living with them. Mothers’ and children’s human rights are violated by state actors in the U.S. such as the court system and child protection workers, which have been documented in Massachusetts and Arizona.
The connections between child maltreatment and abuse of women indicates a strong need for coordination between child welfare advocates and domestic abuse agencies and advocates. In particular, it is critical that agencies that work with abused children are trained to recognize signs of domestic violence and to respond appropriately. In the 2002 U.S. District Court case,  Nicolson v. Williams (U.S. District Court, East District of New York, Case #00-CV2229), the judge concluded that the New York City agency for child protection had overstepped its authority when it removed several children from their abused mothers due solely to their mothers having been victims of domestic violence. Expert testimony concluded that while children exposed to domestic violence may be at greater risk of experiencing emotional and behavioral difficulties, there are a wide range of responses and many negative outcomes seem to diminish over time when the child and mother’s safety is restored.
Because of the correlation between intimate partner violence and child abuse, and the potential impact that exposure to such violence can have on children, it is important that the laws governing child abuse and child custody do not have unintended effects on battered women. The Greenbook Initiative is a project designed to help child welfare and domestic violence agencies and family courts work together more effectively to aid families experiencing violence. The U.K. Home Office has developed a practice report entitled “Tackling Domestic Violence: Providing support for children who have witnessed domestic violence” which is designed for social service practitioners.
Another source for legal system information on domestic violence and child custody issues in the U.S. is the National Council on Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ). They have worked with other organizations to develop Children’s Exposure to Domestic Violence: Guide to Research and Resources, a very useful document for legal and social service professionals. In Canada, the Center for Children and Families in the Justice System has a wide variety of publications available on this topic.
It is important to ensure that the legal and social responses to cases of domestic violence involving children do not blame or revictimize the abused parent or further traumatize the children. Advocates and all those responding must carefully consider the options available and strive to do what is best to help make all victims safer, while holding the perpetrators of the abuse accountable for their behavior.
Compiled from:
1.       UNICEF (2006). World Report on Violence Against Children. (Internet document, pdf 64 pages; 1.1 MB)
2.       Whitfield, Anda, Dube, & Felittle (2003). Violent Childhood Experiences and the Risk of Intimate Partner Violence in Adults: Assessment in a Large Health Maintenance Organization. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 18(2): 166-185. (Journal article)
3.       Catalano & Shannan (2007). Intimate Partner Violence in the United States. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. (Internet document; 491 KB; http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/ipvus.pdf)
 4 .       The National Network to End Domestic Violence (2009) Domestic Violence Counts 2009: A 24-hour Census of Domestic Violence Shelters and Services. Internet document (16 pages) available at http://www.nnedv.org/resources/census/375-census-2009-report.html
  1. Sandra Graham-Bermann & Julie Seng, 2005,Violence Exposure and Traumatic Stress Symptoms as Additional Predictors of Health Problems in High-Risk Children, 146, J. of Pediatrics 309.
  2. Edleson, J. L. (1999), Problems Associated with Children’s Witnessing of Domestic Violence. Internet document available at http://new.vawnet.org/category/Main_Doc.php?docid=392

    7.  Edleson, J.L., Mbilinyi, L.F., Beeman, S.K. & Hagemeister, A.K. (2003). How children are involved in adult domestic violence: Results from a four city telephone survey. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 18(1) 18-32. (Journal article) .      

8.       Levey, Steketee & Keilitz (2000) Lessons Learned in Implementing an Integrated Domestic Violence Court: The District of Columbia Experience (Internet document, 38 pages, available at http://contentdm.ncsconline.org/cgi-bin/showfile.exe?CISOROOT=/famct&CISOPTR=7)
  1. World Health Organization. (2005) Multi-country study on women’s health and domestic violence against women. (Chapter 2). Internet document available at: http://www.who.int/gender/violence/who_multicountry_study/en/
  1. Bancroft with Silverman The Batterer as parent: Addressing the impact of domestic violence on family dynamics. http://www.lundybancroft.com/art_custody_visitation.html
  1. Slote, K.Y., Cuthber, C., Mesh, C.J., Driggers, M. G., Bancroft L. & Silverman, J.G. (2005). Battered Mothers Speak Out: Participatory Humgn Rights Documentation as a Model for Research and Activisim in the U.S., Violence Against Women, 11, 11.
  1. Battered Mothers' Testimony Project (BMTP) (2003).Battered Mothers Fight to Survive the Family Court System, Research & Action Report, Wellsley College. http://www.stopfamilyviolence.org/sites/documents/0000/0035/AZ_bmtp_report.pdf
  1. Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence (June 2003). “Battered mothers testimony project: A human rights approach to child custody and domestic violence.”
  1. U.K. Home Office Report. (undated). Tackling Domestic violence: Providing support for children who have witnessed domestic violence. (Home Office Practice and Development Report #33). Available online from http://rds.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs04/dpr33.pdf
Additional Resources:
American Bar Association Report (2000) Helping children exposed to domestic violence: Law enforcement and community partnerships. A report to the U.S. National Institute of justice. http://www.abanet.org/child/dvchild.pdf (Internet document)
Bragg, H. L., (2003). Child protection in families experiencing domestic violence. Caliber Associates. U.S. Office on Child Abuse and Neglect. http://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/usermanuals/domesticviolence/index.cfm (Internet document)
Edleson, J.L. (2006, October). Emerging Responses to Children Exposed to Domestic Violence. Harrisburg, PA: VAWnet, a project of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence/Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. http://new.vawnet.org/category/Main_Doc.php?docid=585 (Internet document)
Hester, M., Pearson, C., & Harwin, N. (2006). Making an impact: children and domestic violence : A reader, (2nd ed.), London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. (Book)
Jaffe, P.G. & Crooks, C.V. (2005). Understanding Women's Experiences Parenting in the Context of Domestic Violence : Implications for Community and Court-Related Service Providers http://www.vaw.umn.edu/documents/commissioned/parentingindv/parentingindv.html (Internet document)
Jaffe, P.G., Lemon, N. K. D. & Poisson, s. E. (2003). Child custody & domestic violence: a call for safety and accountability. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. (Book)
National Center for Children Exposed to Violence: Paper on young children’s exposure to adult DV http://www.nccev.org/pdfs/series_paper6.pdf (Internet document)
Radford, L. & Hester, M. (2006). Mothering through domestic violence. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London, England. (Book)
Saunders, D. G. with Oehme, K. (Rev. October 2007).Child Custody and Visitation Decisions in Domestic Violence Cases: Legal Trends, Risk Factors, and Safety Concerns (Internet document available from VAwnet at http://www.vawnet.org/category/Documents.php?docid=1134&category_id=617).
UNICEF – Child protection section. (2006). Behind Closed Doors: The impact of domestic violence on children. (Booklet, pdf, 8 pages, includes color graphics). (Internet document) http://www.unicef.org/protection/files/BehindClosedDoors.pdf
Weithorn, L.A. (2001). Protecting Children from Exposure to Domestic Violence: The Use and Abuse of Child Maltreatment Statutes, Hastings Law Journal, Vol. 53, No. 1, November 2001 (Journal article)