Domestic Violence: An Overview

Effects of Domestic Violence on Children and Teenagers


Estimates are that more than 3.3 million children are exposed to physical and verbal spousal abuse each year. 14  Exposure means seeing or hearing the actual abuse or dealing with the aftermath of the abuse.

When describing the effects of domestic violence on children, it is important to note that domestic violence and child abuse are often present in the same families.  “In homes where domestic violence occurs, children are physically abused and neglected at a rate 15 times higher than the national average.  Several studies have shown that in 60% to 75% of families in which a woman is battered, children are also battered.” 14  In addition, children living in households where domestic violence is occurring are at a higher risk for sexual abuse.

The effects of witnessing or experiencing violence at home vary tremendously from one child to another.  The attributes that give a child the greatest chance of surviving unscathed are “average or above-average intellectual development with good attention and interpersonal skills.  Also feelings of self-esteem and self-efficacy, attractiveness to others in both personality and appearance, individual talents, religious affiliations, socioeconomic advantage, opportunities for good schooling and employment, and contact with people and environments that are positive for development.” 14

Many children in families where domestic violence has occurred appeared to be “parentified.”  They are forced to grow up faster than their peers, often taking on the responsibility of cooking, cleaning and caring for younger children.  Laura Gillberg, MSW, is the child and adolescent program director at Sarah’s Inn, an agency in Oak Park, Illinois.  She stated, “Many of these children were not allowed to have a real childhood.  They don’t trust their fathers because of his role as an abuser and they may have been worried about what to expect when coming home.  They learned at a young age to be prepared for anything.”

Children may also be isolated.  Typical activities such as having friends over to their house may be impossible due to the chaotic atmosphere.  “Kids aren’t going to have their friends over when mom has a black eye.”  However, school performance is not always obviously affected.  Children may respond by being overachievers.

Gillberg noticed that children in domestic violence tend to be either extremely introverted or extremely extroverted.  Psychosomatic problems (aches and pains for no apparent reason) are common; these children’s eating and sleeping patterns tend to be disrupted.  Children who witness domestic violence can develop behavior problems, including aggression and violent outbursts.

Underlying all these “symptoms” of domestic violence are children’s emotional responses: i.e. anger – misery – intense terror – fear of dying – fear of the loss of a parent.  Children may feel rage, guilt, or a sense of responsibility for the violence, which can stifle emotional and social development.  To learn and grow into a healthy adult, children must feel confident in the world and in themselves.  Domestic violence can wipe out a child’s confidence and leave them shocked.

Effects of Domestic Violence: academic problems; agitation – feeling “jumpy”; aggression; avoidance of reminders; behavior problems; clinginess to caregivers; depression; distractibility; emotional numbing; emotional changes; fear – feeling scared; fear of natural exploring; feelings of guilt; feelings of not belonging; flashbacks; general emotional distress; increased arousal; intrusive thoughts; insomnia; irritability; low levels of empathy; low self-esteem; nightmares; numbing of feelings; obsessive behaviors; phobias; poor problem-solving skills; posttraumatic stress disorder; revenge seeking; social problems; suicidal behaviors; truancy; withdrawal from activities.

Effects in Adulthood: alcohol abuse; depression; low self-esteem; violent practices in the home; criminal behavior; sexual problems; substance abuse.


Infants and toddlers who witness violence show excessive irritability, immature behavior, sleep disturbances, emotional distress, fears of being alone, and regression in toileting and language.  Preschool children may develop enuresis and speech disfluencies, such as stuttering.  “Exposure to trauma, especially family violence, interferes with a child’s normal development of trust and later exploratory behaviors, which lead to the development of autonomy.” 14<


Being a teenager is difficult, as most of us remember.  But being a teenager and living in a house infected with domestic violence can have devastating, life-long effects.  Teens living with domestic violence face the unique problem of trying to fit in with their peers while keeping their home life a secret.  Teens in shelters often face the problem of having to move and begin school in a new place, having to make new friends while feeling the shame of living in a shelter.  Needless to say, their family relationships can be strained to the breaking point.  The result can be teens who never learn to form trusting, lasting relationships, or teens who end up in violent relationships themselves.

In addition, teens face the same issues as younger children in an abusive family, namely feeling lonely and isolated, growing up too fast, behavior problems, stress related medical and mental health problems, and school problems.  Teenagers are also faced with entering into the dating world for the first time.  They are formulating their own theories about relationships, and some may not have the best models on which to base a healthy relationship.  They have witnessed the cycle of violence with the abuse, apologies from the perpetrator, tensions building and more abuse.  Unfortunately, some teenagers may be faced with a higher risk of being victims of dating violence and as mentioned earlier, ending up in violent relationships as adults either as victims or abusers.

What is Emotional Abuse?
What is Physical Abuse?
What is Sexual Abuse?
Domestic Violence Statistics: Prevalence and Trends
It’s Hard to Stop because it’s Hard to Report
Effects of Domestic Violence
Effects of Domestic Violence on Children and Teenagers
Help is Available!
Domestic Violence Shelters: What They Do
Nationwide Crisis and Hotline Directory
Domestic Violence References

Referring to this article:
“Domestic Violence: An Overview” was written by C. J. Newton, MA, Learning Specialist and published in the Find (formerly Mental Health Journal in February, 2001.

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