Dr. Willis Newman, Esmeralda Newman, bible-teaching-about.com

Domestic Violence and
How it Affects Children

by. Esmeralda Newman


This paper reviews available literature on how domestic violence affects the children witness it. The paper narrows its focus on domestic violence involving battered mothers, their children, and fathers, or the father- figures that perpetuate the violence.  Domestic violence, the perpetrators and victims involved are explained. Certain factors mitigate or aggravate the impact of domestic violence on children such as the mother’s ability to parent in the midst of a violent home environment, and the length and severity of children’s exposure to violence. Materials reviewed indicate that witnessing domestic violence negatively impact the children who witness it. 

The impact affects their physical, cognitive, behavioral, emotional and social functioning. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms were also found to be associated with children exposed to domestic violence. Children apply either emotion-focused or problem-focused coping strategies in response to the stress and discomfort related to witnessing domestic violence. Immediate intervention is necessary to protect both the victims and their children from the long lasting debilitating impact of domestic violence in their lives.


Last April 5, 2011, an active-duty army medic from the Joint Lewis-McChord Base led police on a high speed chase at the Interstate 5 before shooting himself. The police found the body of his wife, age 38, a registered nurse, dead from a gunshot wound inside the vehicle.  Police later found the dead body of their 5-year old son at their Spanaway home. The boy was found with a plastic bag over his head and bruises all over his body. He had been dead for at least 24 hours (Stacia, 2011). 

The news sent surrounding communities, including the military community, reeling from this senseless tragedy, especially because it involves an innocent five-year old. Once again, people are forced to grapple with the realities of domestic violence.

The Center for Disease Control’s released the following statistics on their recent Fact Sheet on Understanding Intimate Partner Violence (2011):

•  Each year, women experience about 4.8 million intimate partner related physical assaults and rapes. Men are the victims of about 2.9 million intimate partner related physical assaults.

•  Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) resulted in 2,340 deaths in 2007. Of these deaths, 70% were females and 30% were males.

•  The medical care, mental health services, and lost productivity (e.g., time away from work) cost of Intimate Partner Violence was an estimated $5.8 billion in 1995. Updated to 2003 dollars, that’s more than $8.3 billion

According to estimates, 43% of households that experience domestic violence, from 1993 to 2004, have children that witness them in the United States (Bureau of Justice Statistics, Intimate Partner Violence in the U.S. 1993-2004, 2006, cited by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 2011). The United Nations report that 275 million children worldwide witness domestic violence (Suglia et.al., 2011, p. 36). 

While most domestic violence intervention focus on either the perpetrators or the victims, the children who suffer collateral damage from witnessing or being exposed to it are mostly ignored. Some who recognize such disparity are beginning to find ways to address the issue.  John E. Carter, the coordinator of the attorney-for-the-child assignment in the Appellate Division, Third Division in Oregon, said: “"Whether they were raised as victims or just exposed to it, the impact of domestic violence on children stays with them for years, and it is imperative that the people who represent them understand what the impacts are and understand what it means from the children's perspective” (Albany, 2009). 

The purpose of this paper is to determine how domestic violence impacts the children who witness it from various literature written in the last two decades about the subject. Focus will be on children of heterosexual marriages or domestic partnerships, with the male as the perpetrator of violence. Studies show that men “initiate violence more often and cause more injury” (Saunders, 1988; Strets and Staus, 1990, as cited by Saunders, 1994, p. 51).  Different factors that mitigate the impact will be highlighted.  Studies indicate how critical need for early intervention for the victims of domestic violence and their children.

Domestic Violence Explained

Domestic violence defined. From a legal stand point the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 26.50.010 defines  domestic violence as, “Physical harm, bodily injury, assault, or the infliction of fear of imminent physical harm, bodily injury or assault, between family or household members; (b) sexual assault of one family or household member by another; or (c) stalking as defined in RCW 9A.46.110 of one family or household member by another family or household member” (Definitions segment, par. 1).  

From a psychosocial point of view, Dr. Anne Ganley, author and Psychologist from Seattle, Washington, defined domestic violence as, “A pattern of assaultive and coercive behaviors including physical, sexual and psychological attacks as well as economic coercion that adults or adolescents use against their intimate partners” (Ganley, 1995, p. 16).

Cycle of violence. Domestic violence is said to follow a certain pattern called the “cycle of violence” (Walker, 1979, cited by Martin, 2011, p. 292). It begins with the, “honeymoon,” phase where the batterer woos the victim, and promises nothing but a wonderful life with him.  Pretty soon, the batterer’s anger starts simmering, provoked by such things as jealousy, and fear of losing control or abandonment, This phase is followed by a ‘violent eruption,”  where the batterer abuses her partner. The honeymoon phase follows right after, where the batterer expresses remorse, and promises not to hurt the victim again. This phase of course signals another cycle of violence, which continues in a never ending cycle (Martin, 2011, p. 292).

According to the Domestic Violence Resource Center, “as many as one in four women in America has experience domestic violence in their lifetime”, and that on the average, “more than three women and one man are murdered by their intimate partners in this country every day”  (Domestic violence statistics segment, 2011, pars. 1 and 15 ).  Why are so many involved in abusive relationships?

The batterer.Donald Dutton, a psychology professor from the University of British Columbia, and an expert witness for high profile domestic violence cases such as the O.J. Simpson case, explains that contrary to common perception that men who batter must have “nasty personalities” (Dutton, 1995, p. 5), batterers come from different age, profession, social class and racial background. However, there are indications that batterers often have, “long standing, severe problems such as alcoholism and emotional wounds from childhood traumas (Hotaling & Sugarman, 1986), while others have serious “personality disorders” (Hamburger & Hastings, 1986, cited by Saunders, 1995, p. 54).

Studies show that children exposed to domestic violence have a greater likelihood of turning into a batterer or a victim of battering in adulthood. “The findings on batterers and abuse in childhood are consistent with social learning theory that predicts that modeling of violence during childhood would increase the likelihood of the behavior later in life“(Safe Haven, 2007, p.9). Batterers use violence for different reasons including a desire to wield power and control, fear of abandonment, an inability to cope with outside stressors, and some due to psychopathy.  <br><br>

Dutton identifies at least <B>4 types of batterers</B> in his book, The Batterer (1995): the “cyclical/emotionally volatile” abusers, who abuse their partners in fits of rage due fear of abandonment and jealousy; the “psychopathic” abusers, who are without a conscience and the most dangerous; and the “overcontrolled” abusers, who use violence to assert power and control. According to Dutton, the overcontrolled wife assaulters have the most likelihood of responding well to violence perpetrator treatment, while the psychopaths are the least likely to change (pp. 29-33). 

Recent studies done to evaluate if the the current court mandated domestic violence perpetrators treatment, which involves psycho-educational counseling/therapy through state licensed counselors reveal, “the inefficacy of batterer programs in rehabilitating offenders” (Safe Haven, p. 3).

The victims. Perhaps the only similarity perpetrators and victims of violence have is that victims also come from all walks of life: different profession, age, socio-economic status and racial background. Since as many as 43% of households reported for domestic violence have children involved, there is a tendency to blame the mothers of children for not shielding and protecting their children from the traumatic effects of domestic violence. 

People ask: “Why do they stay?” Are mothers complicit in causing damage to their children by staying with their violent partners/spouses? A class action suit was filed by battered mothers whose children were taken from their custody against the City of New York. The suit was really a retaliatory action against the city who accused these mothers for, “engaging in domestic violence,” by not leaving their violent intimate partners (Magen, 1999, cited by LaLiberte, Bills, J., Shin, N., Edleson, J., 2010, p. 1644).

There are several reasons why women do not leave their batterers. Many do not leave, because of the threat to their lives, or the lives of other loved ones including their children, or even their pets. “Seventy five percent of women killed by partners…are murdered while attempting to leave” (Domestic Abuse Women’s Network, 2011, What are the barriers to leaving, par. 3). Some women do not have the financial means to make it outside of the support of their abusive partners. They see life without their abusive partners/husbands as uncertain and unstable. (Mandel, 2010, p. 533). Some stay because their abusive partners threaten to take custody of the children, while others stay in vain hope that their husbands or partners are eventually going to change.

NEXT: How witnessing domestic violence impacts children

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