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Over the past 30 years, national and international awareness of the impacts of domestic violence on women has grown with the implementation of various ‘Break The Silence’ campaigns as well as special events on December 6 for ‘National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women’ and November 25 for ‘International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women’.  While North America has often led such endeavors, there has been increased involvement in other parts of the world to bring public attention to this often private occurrence.  In particular, India’s Save Our Sisters initiative has launched a domestic violence campaign this month called ‘Abused Goddesses’.

While such services are indeed powerful and needed to promote education and awareness of domestic violence against women, information and action on the concurrent impact of domestic violence on children has lagged behind.  In more recent years, public and private sectors have made great strides to bring this issue forward with help from schools, community groups, and healthcare professionals.  Recognizing the impact and needs of children affected by domestic violence has been at the forefront of Women’s Crisis Services of Waterloo Region’s programs and services.

Exposure to domestic violence significantly affects many areas of children’s lives, including their growth and development, psycho-emotional well-being, social and familial relationships, as well as cognitive and academic functioning.  While behavioural responses to domestic violence vary depending on the age of the child, variables that appear to affect these responses include the child’s proximity to the violence, the severity and chronicity of the violence, the child’s age and temperament, as well as the availability of non-abusive adults who can protect the child.

Art created in Women’s Crisis Services Shelters

Children as young as infants, and even babies in utero, are affected by domestic violence.  Commonly observed behaviours among children between birth to 18 years old include disturbances in sleep and eating patterns.  Younger children may demonstrate a temporary regression of previously acquired skills such as toileting, delays with speech and motor development, fearfulness and separation anxiety, hyperactivity and withdrawn behaviour, stomach aches and headaches.  Older children may re-enact the traumatic event during play and social interactions, display excessive aggression and psychopathology, experience feelings of self-blame, guilt, anger, confusion, worry, embarrassment, and depression.  They may also show signs of self-harm and suicide ideation, and engage in substance use and school truancy.

Children who are exposed to domestic violence may also experience long-terms effects that impact their adult functioning.  Moreover, children of domestic violence today could be the same women entering shelter and/or the perpetrators of domestic violence tomorrow.  Violence that continues from one generation to another (referred by some as a ‘collective unconscious’), is a commonly observed trend among families in shelter – that is, where there is domestic violence, there is often another type of violence, and it is not uncommon for women who experience domestic violence to have also  experienced childhood trauma. While this generational impact may sound bleak, there is hope. There is empirical evidence and first-hand accounts of positive outcomes to support the strength among women and resiliency among children who have been exposed to domestic violence.

A first priority among all professionals working with families affected by domestic violence is an assessment of immediate risk to the woman and children, and the development of a safety plan.  Once addressed, supportive and therapeutic interventions for children can take place which include the promotion of open discussion about children’s exposure to and experiences of domestic violence (this can be difficult for women as despite their efforts to protect their children from domestic violence, children tend to be very aware of such dynamics and often pick up on the negative energy in a home).

While specific techniques can range depending on an individual child’s age and receptiveness to individual and group therapy, primary objectives aim to help children to deal with their emotions, reduce the problematic symptoms, strengthen relationships with their non-abusive caregivers, and help children and their families move forward, beyond violence.



Kitchener-Waterloo Sexual Assault Support Centre

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McAlister Groves, B. (1999).  Mental Health Services for Children Who Witness Domestic Violence.  The Future of Children, Domestic Violence and Children, Vol. 9, No. 3