The Effects of Domestic Violence on Children

There are various types of child maltreatment which may result from incidents of family violence.  They include physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse and neglect.

Physical abuse to the child may occur: During the course of parental fighting, when violence shifts directly onto the child, especially older males. 

Accidentally during the course of parental fighting, for example, if a mother drops her infant during a fight or a parent accidentally hits the child.

When the disappointment in the relationship shifts to disappointment in the child.

When a frustrated parent projects blame for his or her marital problems onto the child.

When a victim of family violence cannot retaliate against the abusive spouse and takes her aggressions out on the child.

When the abusive spouse includes the child, as well as his partner, as a target for violence.

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse of children in violent families may occur more often than physical abuse, and may cause severe psychological damage to the child.  For example, the child may be made to feel responsible for the parents' marital problems and for their violent behavior.  In general, children in a violent family will experience emotional abuse, deprivation, and potentially long lasting psychological problems.

Sexual Abuse

Sexually abused children, most commonly father/daughter incest, may be sanctioned in some violent families.  The female spouse may be aware of the incestuous activity but does not intervene in order to avoid retaliatory violence to herself or unwanted sexual demands.  A spouse may also not be aware of the sexual abuse because of her own preoccupation with survival and safety from her spouse's violence.  Because of a sense of guilt, responsibility, fear and confusion, the child may not reveal the incest for a long time. 


Children may be neglected due to the parents' lack of energy or inability to meet their needs.

Neglect of the child may take the form of emotional deprivation, lack of supervision, failure to provide adequate medical care, or failure to provide adequate nutrition.

Perpetuating the Cycle of Family Violence

There is a real danger that children will learn aggression and that it will become part of their pattern of behavior.  Research studies, child abuse literature and family theorists indicate that violent patterns of behavior are transmitted from generation to generation.  Findings have suggested that abused children often become abusive parents and abusive spouses.  Children who observed their parents or other significant adults engage in physical violence often learn these behaviors and reenact them when they become adults.  In addition, many adults who abuse their spouses were abused as children and/or observed physical violence between their parents.

Violence is a pattern of learned behavior.  It appears to be acquired by exposure, observation and sanctioned within the family.  It seems that the repetition of the violence is also due to the lack of any other observed or learned stress responses within the family system.  Although a person who has been battered as a child often has intense negative feelings about the parents and their behavior, contradicting these negative feelings are feelings of love for and identification with the parents.  Children may take the learned abuser or victim role as an adult.  In addition to learning violent behaviors, the children learn adaptive or survival behaviors by which they can avoid being abused.  Both the abuser and victim roles are available to children's behavioral repertoires and they find a partner who is also susceptible to enact these roles.

Generally, the male child who experiences family violence will initially identify with his mother and have intense negative feelings about his father's violent behavior.  As he gets older, the child may attempt to intervene in violent episodes.  In addition to this, the older male child in the family may serve to meet some of his mother's needs and may take on some of the father's roles.  He may become his mother's confidant and supporter.  The prepubescent male child often becomes his mother's favorite, as a result, she may be very concerned about his development.  The relationship between mother and son may thus be quite close, while communications between father and son are very poor.

As the male child reaches late adolescence, he may become violent, rebellious, and out of control.  In his attempt to break out of the very close relationship with his mother he may become abusive to her, as he begins to identify with his father.  He may also begin to drink to excess, damage property, and behave violently to younger siblings.  He may become abusive if he is involved in a relationship.  The mother to her horror, may find herself in a relationship with her son which is similar to that with her husband.  The son may assume he should exert control, resulting in a power struggle between him and his mother as he attempts to become the man of the house.

Females who have witnessed violence between their parents may take either the victim, or the abuser role, depending on the circumstances.  Girls whose mothers enact only a victim role will generally model this role themselves.  Often they assume child rearing responsibilities for the siblings.  The older daughter may miss school to care for them.  The daughter may resent this role but will rarely express anger.  She usually attempts to please her parents, but is often unable to meet their needs.  During violent episodes, she may make an effort to protect the other children.  The daughter's role as surrogate mother and mediator often makes her a potential victim of incest.  These females may be quiet, shy, and withdrawn.  There is a probability that, without intervention, they will become victims of violence.

Alternatively, females who have witnessed violent parental interactions may have behavioral problems.  These children may project their problems in the classroom and behave violently to peers or siblings.  As they approach adolescence, many of these girls run away from home, abuse drugs/alcohol, and become sexually indiscriminate.  All of these behaviors suggest an attempt to escape from an emotionally and physically deprived situation.

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