Definition of domestic violence*
Cohen and Knitzer (2004) define domestic violence as a “pattern of assaultive and coercive behaviors that an adult uses against an intimate partner.” Domestic violence may include physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. A man is committing domestic violence if he forces his spouse to have sex with him, puts her down, humiliates her in the presence of others or threatens to take the children away; however, domestic violence affects people from all social, economic, racial, religious, ethnic, and sex groups.
Prevalence of domestic violence*
Domestic violence occurs across different cultures and socioeconomic status. Several studies* indicate that as many as three million children witness domestic violence every year. These children, in addition to the victimized parents, will be at risk of developing a variety of problems as a consequence of their exposure to the traumatic nature of domestic violence.
How children may react to the trauma caused by domestic violence
Any child that grows up in a violent atmosphere is likely to be affected. In some cases the effect is immediate, but in others it may show up later in life. According to the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information (2003), children exposed to domestic violence may experience the following problems:
Behavioral, social, and emotional problems such as anger, hostility, fear, anxiety, withdrawal, and/or low self-esteem. There is a tendency for boys to demonstrate more “externalizing” behaviors such as hitting, breaking things, hyperactivity, etc., while girls show more “internalizing” behaviors such as depression and withdrawal.
Cognitive and attitudinal problems resulting in poor academic performance, inability to resolve conflict, and belief in gender stereotypes.
Long-term problems such as depression, use of drugs and alcohol, and an increased tolerance for the use of violence in interpersonal relationships.
* Source: The youngest victims of domestic violence. Accessed at www.4therapy.com
under Domestic Violence search
The role of culture
Domestic violence takes place across all socioeconomic levels and cultures. However, it is important to consider that in some instances culture can play a challenging role in the process of coping with domestic violence. Imagine the problems faced by a woman who is a victim of domestic violence and who wants to leave her spouse, but has limited language skills or financial resources.
Protective factors that moderate the effects of domestic violence
Even though domestic violence is a traumatic event, not every child is affected in the same way. In fact, each child is likely to react differently depending on a series of protective factors in the child, the family or the environment. The more abundant these factors are in the life of the child, the better his/her chance to not develop maladaptive behaviors. Some of these protective factors are: intelligence, high self-esteem, good self-efficacy, having a good relationship with siblings, and having an adult figure that the child finds supportive.
Potential long-term effects of domestic violence
Some of the negative long-term effects of growing up in a violent home are the following:
A misunderstanding about the meaning of love may develop. Instead of defining it as caring and respect for others, they could equate it with pain and aggression.
Abusive behavior and aggression can potentially be the only method of conflict resolution.
Children could have a higher risk for engaging in self-destructive behaviors such as substance abuse.
After becoming adults, they may replicate what they saw, and in this way, become abusive toward their children.
Domestic violence and child abuse*
Domestic violence and child abuse are difficult to separate. It is not uncommon for abusive parents to hurt children in an attempt to control or intimidate the other parent. Also, children may accidentally get involved during a physical confrontation between the parents and risk being hurt. According to California Penal Code § 11172, subdivision (e) gives mandated reporters who report suspected cases of child abuse absolute immunity, both civilly and criminally, for making such reports. However, any person who fails to report an instance of child abuse as required by the Child Abuse and Reporting Act is guilty of a misdemeanor with a punishment not to exceed six months, or $1,000 or both.
Myths about the exposure to violence*
According to the Child Witness to Violence Project the following are incorrect beliefs about the negative effects that any type of violence can have in the development of children:
“The younger the child, the less likely she will be affected by exposure to violence.” There is plenty of evidence that documents that young children are not immune to the negative effects of violence.
“Young children will not remember the violence they have witnessed.” This is not true. Children not only have amazing capacities to remember traumatic events, but there is always a possibility that the child develops long lasting physiological and psychological problems as a result of his/her exposure to domestic violence.
“Violence is basically an urban problem; therefore, only children living in urban areas have a higher risk of witnessing domestic violence.” This is not true given the fact that domestic violence occurs across different social, cultural, and economic conditions.
“Violence is a racial problem affecting primarily African-American and Hispanic children.” There is evidence that domestic violence occurs at similar rates across all races and cultural backgrounds.
How to nurture abused children
The following suggestions can be helpful to children to overcome the negative effects of domestic violence. Parents are encouraged to provide an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect; behave in a way that promotes emotional and physical security to the children; use consistent and non-punitive discipline; and give plenty of time, show much affection, and demonstrate genuine patience.
What to do if a parent or a child is at risk
The most important aspect is to ensure that the parent and/or the children are safe. In order to do this, the parent may need to go stay with a friend or relative, access a shelter, and call the police or 911 in the event of a life and death emergency. Make sure you have access to a program that can help you during this difficult transition, and can assist you in accessing the necessary community resources so you can develop a plan to rebuild your life.