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Children are often considered the “hidden” victims in families where domestic violence occurs. Studies have estimated that 3.3 – 10 million children witness domestic violence each year. Children, like their adult caregivers, experience trauma from the physical and verbal abuse in the home.

Children can display a variety of behaviors due to witnessing domestic violence and those behaviors can affect their ability to be successful in school and other social settings. Also, 30% to 60% of perpetrators of domestic violence abuse children in the household.

How children are exposed to abuse

Children may be hit, sworn at, called names, threatened, and have their belongings damaged or their pets hurt. Or they may see, hear, or be aware of their mother being abused. Research has shown that both can be equally damaging to children.

Sometimes we talk about children who witness abuse. But witnessing goes way beyond just seeing the abuse.

For instance, children may:

  • see bruises on their mother
  • hear fighting, shouting, thuds, and things getting broken during the night

The next day their mother may be pale, shaky, and tearful, lying in bed staring at the ceiling. The children may go without breakfast, have no lunch for school, and spend the day worrying about what they will find when they get home.

Later their father may try to convince them that the abuse was their mother’s fault. Or the children may assume it was their fault.

Children may think that something they did or didn’t do caused the fight, or that they should have been able to stop the fighting, to prevent their mother getting hurt.

This is not a healthy environment for a child. Children depend on their parents to meet their emotional and physical needs.

When a partner is abusive, the children’s needs may be neglected.

Children learn many things by watching their parents. These include communicating feelings, solving problems, coping with frustration, being respectful, and having consideration for others.

Although some children in violent homes appear unaffected by the violence and have no mental health problems, their experiences may influence their beliefs and attitudes.

When children see their mother being abused they may learn that:

  • It’s OK to use violence.
  • Violence is a way to get what you want.
  • Violence is a way to solve problems.
  • You can gain power and control over others by using violence. • Abuse is a normal part of relationships.
  • Any distressing feeling can be expressed as violence.
  • Men are more important and more powerful than women.
  • Women don’t deserve respect.

Children who are exposed to abuse may be more likely to be abusive or abused when they are adults.

The effect on a child depends on:

  • the severity of the abuse
  • how often it happens
  • how long it has gone on
  • whether the child is being abused as well
  • whether the child already has some health or mental health problems

Other important factors include:

  • the amount of support available to the child from parents, relatives, neighbours, friends, teachers and coaches
  • whether the child is exposed to more violence in the community
  • whether the child is exposed to violence on the TV and video games
  • whether the child has other stresses at home and school

Children’s reactions depend on their age and stage of development


In the first year of life babies depend on their parents/caregivers to provide food, toileting, shelter, warmth and protection.

Babies need to be held, talked to, and played with. They thrive on structure and routines. They develop an emotional bond or attachment to familiar adults and to brothers and sisters.

By the second half of their first year, many babies get very distressed if a familiar person is not available. This is called separation anxiety.

Many people think that woman abuse has no impact on a baby. But it can have profound and long-lasting effects.

When a woman is being abused and has a baby:

  • She may be upset, preoccupied and fearful. She may even feel terrified and helpless.
  • She may be unable to give the baby as much care and attention as she would like. The tension and stress in the household may affect the baby. The baby may react by crying excessively, eating or sleeping poorly, developing slowly, getting sick often, or being very fearful with loud noises.


Between the ages of one and three, toddlers are developing and learning very fast. Like babies, they still depend on their parents/caregivers to provide food, warmth, shelter and protection, and thrive on structure and routines. They have learned to crawl or walk and have no sense of danger. Someone must be supervising them at all times.

Living with an active toddler can be very hard work.

With help from parents, toddlers gradually learn what is acceptable behaviour, to use the toilet, to feed themselves, and to communicate with words rather than crying or pointing. They learn by imitating their parents and older brothers and sisters, by being praised for their accomplishments, by looking at picture books and TV programs, by responding to their parent’s directions, and by trial and error on their own.

Some toddlers go to daycare or preschool where they begin to learn how to interact with other children. Toddlers tend to play “in parallel,” next to rather than with another child. Toddlers are “egocentric.” This means that they think that they are most important and at the centre of everything. This explains why they don’t feel the need to share toys, and have little understanding of other people’s feelings. (Some people think that abusers are still stuck at this stage!)

When a woman is being abused and has a toddler:

  • The toddler may react by imitating the abusive behaviour that they are witnessing. This can include hitting and biting, hurting pets, screaming and yelling, and breaking toys. The toddler may be mimicking the abuser’s disrespectful attitude. If left alone toddlers may hurt themselves or others.
  • The toddler may react to the tension in the home by whining, clinging, crying, having eating or sleeping problems, or withdrawing.
  • Toddlers sometimes try to comfort themselves by rocking, sucking their thumbs, or touching their private parts.
  • Sometimes the stress causes the child to get sick more often.


Children between the age of three and five are still very dependent on their parents.

Their parents care for them, give them hugs and encouragement, keep them safe, supervise their play, guide their interactions with other children, and help them learn the skills that they will need when they go to school.

Parents are still playing a major role in shaping preschoolers’ behaviour by modelling, praising, encouraging, giving simple instructions, setting limits, and having basic rules.

Children in this age group are able to speak and make others aware of their needs. They are or are about to be toilet trained. They are learning the meaning of right and wrong and how to control their impulses. They are aware of some basic feelings such as being angry, sad, and happy. They are beginning to be able to play cooperatively with peers, to take turns and to share.

When a woman is being abused and has a preschooler:

  • The preschooler may become excessively compliant and pleasing. Or preschoolers may react to the tension and unhappiness with eating or sleeping problems, or by clinging and separation anxiety. Or they may try to comfort themselves with habits such as thumb-sucking or masturbation.
  • A preschooler may mimic the abuse by hitting, being cruel to animals, breaking toys and other items, fighting with other children, being defiant, swearing, name-calling and yelling.
  • Sometimes distressed preschoolers lose the skills that they have gained. For example, they start to wet the bed again or go back to eating with their fingers.
  • In preschool or daycare the child may seem unhappy or angry, may defy staff and have problems getting on with other children.


Between the ages of six and twelve, children are increasingly exposed to experiences and expectations outside the family. Parents, however, are still their main source of affection, protection, supervision and guidance.

Like younger children, elementary school-aged children need a positive, supportive, caring relationship with their parent or parents.

They need to learn socially appropriate behaviour, to follow rules, to organize themselves, and to control their impulses, moods and expression of feelings. They need to learn how to develop trusting, caring, respectful relationships with others.

Parents need to model, teach and guide – not to force children to be obedient. Effective discipline is very important. It should consist of giving praise and positive reinforcement to increase wanted behaviour and using consequences or removal of privileges to end undesired behaviour. Household rules and reasonable limits are necessary.

When a woman is being abused and has an elementary school-aged child:

  • Her parenting may face many obstacles. These can include her struggle to cope with the violence and her partner’s unwillingness to cooperate in respectful and child-centred parenting.
  • The child may model abusive behaviour by being aggressive, bullying, fighting with other children, destroying property, swearing, yelling, name-calling, being defiant, insisting on getting their own way, and showing disrespect for females.
  • The child may be caught up in the fear, anxiety, and tension at home and react with anxiety, withdrawal, lack of confidence, depression, and eating and sleeping problems.
  • The child may complain of frequent sickness.
  • Anxiety or worry about the violence at home may affect the child’s ability to do school work.
  • The child may try to escape the difficulties at home or react to the lack of supervision and limits by running away, getting involved in delinquent behaviour with other children, or by trying out drugs or alcohol.
  • Some children, mainly girls, who are fearful of the abuser’s violence and sympathetic to their mother’s plight, will be compliant, pleasing and self- effacing, often trying to help out their mother and younger children.


Children of twelve to fifteen continue to need parental attention, support, encouragement, protection, supervision and guidance. They need firm limits and expectations that are applied consistently. They should not be allowed to play one parent against the other.

Their parents’ interaction with each other sets an important example for how teens will behave in dating relationships.

Despite their involvement with friends and teenage activities, these young adolescents are still very vulnerable to difficulties arising from their mother’s abuse.

When a woman is being abused and has an early teen:

  • She may be struggling with issues from the abuse and her partner’s behaviour and lack of cooperation. The teen may not receive supportive parenting.
  • The mother may find that her child is repeating the abuse by being an abuser or victim in a dating relationship.
  • The young teen may respond in a variety of ways that include bullying other children, showing disrespect for females, being involved in delinquent behaviour, abusing drugs or alcohol, dropping out of school, running away, living on the streets, or becoming a prostitute
  • The young teen may react to the tension, anxiety, lack of parental support and periodic violence with anxiety, withdrawal, poor self-esteem, depression, suicide attempts, eating and sleeping problems or frequent complaints of sickness.


Typical teens of sixteen and more are moving towards adulthood. They are more serious about “What I want to do when I grow up.” At the same time, they may have many doubts and fears about joining the adult world. They are becoming more clear about who they are as a person, are less involved with parents and more involved with their own friends and activities.

When a woman is being abused and has a late teen:

  • The teen may resolve never to be abusive, or may already be involved in an abusive relationship.
  • The teen may challenge the abusive parent or even fight with him.
  • The teen may be helpful and protective, or abusive and disrespectful, to the mother.
  • The teen may respond in a variety of ways that include:
    • being involved in delinquent behaviour
    • abusing drugs or alcohol