The link between domestic violence and child abuse

Domestic Violence is Child Abuse

Children face a variety of issues that make growing up hard. Today’s society bombards children with sexual images, violent movies and video games and broken families almost equal primary nuclear families. However, certain factors can create more serious, long-term maladaptive effects than almost any other experience. Domestic violence and child abuse are two of the most serious maladaptive behaviors found in families. And current research indicates that the two issues may be more than casually related.

For years, child protective services workers, social workers and therapists have known that domestic violence in a family impacts children and leads to a home life that is less than optimal for nurturing a developing child’s needs. However, more and more research has come to show that domestic violence in a home, whether the child is a bystander injured by accident; a target of violence, or simply a helpless witness, can have long term devastating effects equal to that of being severely and regularly beaten. Children who have grown up in home impacted by domestic violence exhibit into adulthood maladaptive behaviors that may impact their ability to trust and form long lasting relationships; may cause them to act our in violence or antisocial ways; or may cause them to unintentionally put themselves in harms way so that as adults they are revictimized.

Child abuse and domestic violence often occur in the same family and are linked in a number of important ways that have serious consequences for the safety of children.

With just the most superficial of glances at domestic violence, we know that it often directly results in physical injury and/or psychological harm to children. And even when domestic violence does not result in direct physical injury to the child, it can interfere with both the mother's and the father's parenting to such a degree children may be neglected. And even with social service workers on the scene, while an intervention into child abuse may be initially effective, the impact may be sabotaged, if domestic violence is also present. The perpetrator cannot be held accountable for stopping the violence and may even increase attacks as an attempt to reclaim his dominance in the family.

Far-Reaching Impact

Child abuse is at epidemic proportions in America. In Illinois, my home state, there were over 81,000 reports of child abuse in the fiscal year 2006 which ran from July 1, 2005 to June 30, 2006. Over 17,000 of these reports were said to be founded or based in factual evidence provable to investigators. Over 6,500 cases of child sexual abuse also were accepted for investigation after preliminary examination determined sufficient evidence for further research on behalf of the children, according to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

And as children grow, their early experiences travel with them, producing actions in adulthood as a result. Freud believed that many maladaptive behaviors and symptoms experiences by adults were linked to traumatic experiences as children. While Freud may not be the primary school of thought on child development currently, there is truth in his belief that we carry our childhoods with us and react today to experiences of yesterday.

Household domestic violence, witnessed or experienced by children, can cause horrendous psychological damage. Children damaged in this way often have lower IQs and increased risk of depression, academic failure, inability to make connections with others, isolate themselves, attempt suicide, acting out and drug problems. They are more likely than others to get angry, be arrested and have contacts with the judicial system, according to Dr. Robert Hare, who has published two books on his experience working as a prison psychologist.

According to a University of Michigan study, conducted by their Social Work Department, “The sociopath is a combination of other mental illnesses incurred in childhood as a result of heredity, trauma and the lack of emotional development.

The lack of moral or emotional development gives a sociopath a lack of understanding for other people's feelings, enabling them to be deceitful without feeling bad.

The under-developed emotional system causes emotionally retarded. The behavior problems start in a child and may have links to heredity, but are more likely in a family with alcoholic parents who are violent and criminal.” Additionally, parents who are alcoholics with a propensity for violence outside the home are more prone to violence in the home.

The parents may have been abusive alcoholics or drug addicts, and as a result the children may have difficulty developing emotional bonds. They have few healthy role models for behavior, and there are no rewards for socially acceptable actions. They may come to see the world as dangerous and unpredictable, and lash out in an attempt to hurt someone else before that person has an opportunity to hurt them. Many sociopaths interviewed in Hare’s books state sentiments regarding their victims indicating that they “had it coming,” or “I just screwed them before they could screw me.” Most statements reflected a bleak and suspicious outlook on life and on others.

An overly punitive home also is a strong factor. For example, a child who is beaten at home or witnesses one parent violently lashing out at the other may isolate himself and sulk alone — or channel his anger by destroying property, bullying or provoking fights with a sibling or fellow student. Additionally, when a child repeatedly witnesses violence, he may feel that if there is no sympathy or empathy for his pain, he shouldn’t develop any for his victims. And, based on child development studies, it has been proven that children are likely to act violently if they have witnessed violence that goes

unpunished; while other studies show that children who watch large amounts of violence through movies, television and video games – in the extreme of real life - tend to become desensitized to violence in real life and thus much less likely to react sympathetically to the pain of others. Children, especially male children who watch their father dominate and abuse their mother may come away with inappropriate beliefs about gender, appropriate treatment of the weak, power and family. And these inappropriate beliefs may renew the cycle of child abuse, juvenile aggression and domestic violence into the next generation.

Further enforcing the links between domestic violence and child abuse are statistics which indicate families which experience one type of violence are more likely to experience the other. Risk factors for both maladaptive behaviors are similar and children act out similarly in reaction to both types of abuse. Where one form of family violence exists, there is a strong likelihood that the other one does too. Research shows the impact on children of witnessing parental domestic violence is almost identical to the effects of the child being directly abused. Many factors associated with the occurrence of child abuse are also associated with domestic violence, and many are the same factors that put children at risk for youth violence and adult violent crime. And statistics indicate that a parent who is domestically abusive has a higher likelihood of having experienced domestic violence and child abuse in his own childhood. Also contributing to this problem as well as a result of it is substance abuse. Substantiating these statements are:

  • The Family Violence Prevention Fund research found that nationwide between 30% and 60% of families served by child welfare agencies also experience domestic violence.
  • Approximately 3.3 million children annually are exposed to violence against their mothers or female caretakers by a family member, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
  • In one Florida study, 27% of domestic violence homicide victims were children.
  • In fiscal year 2000-01, more than 1,200 children received services from domestic violence programs in North Carolina according to the state’s Council for Women Against Domestic Violence in that state.

Child abuse and domestic violence often are linked in a number of ways which reflect serious consequences for the safety of the whole family as well as for the community at large.

In a national survey of over 6,000 families, researchers found 50% of the men who frequently assaulted their wives also frequently assaulted their children. Reviewing 200 substantiated child abuse reports, the Massachusetts Department of Social Services found 48% of the records mentioned adult domestic violence. Among hospitalized child abuse cases, 59% of mothers of abused children have been found to be beaten by their partners.

Early childhood victimization, either through direct abuse, neglect, or witnessing parental domestic violence, has been shown to have demonstrable long-term consequences for youth violence, adult violent behaviors, and other forms of criminality.

Children can be killed, physically injured, psychologically harmed, or neglected as a result of either domestic violence or child abuse. From 1990 to 1994, 5,400 children are known to have died from abuse or neglect, according to national studies. In-depth research indicates that domestic violence was present in a large percentage of these cases: The Oregon Department of Human Resources reported that domestic violence occurred in 41% of the families in which children had been critically injured or killed.

The U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect suggests domestic violence may be the single major precursor to child abuse and neglect fatalities.

Domestic violence experts, who point to domestic violence as an act of power and control, state that domestic violence offenders sometimes intentionally injure children in an effort to intimidate and control their partners. These assaults can include physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse. Children may also be injured either intentionally or accidentally during attacks on their mothers. An object thrown or a weapon used may hit a child. Assaults may occur while the mother is holding the child. Injuries to older children often happen when they protect their mother.

Even when domestic violence does not result in injuries to the child, it can interfere with parenting to such a degree children may be neglected or abused. An offender is not parenting when he attacks the child's mother. The physical demands of parenting can overwhelm mothers who are injured or have been kept up all night by beatings. The emotional demands of parenting can be similarly daunting to an abused woman suffering from trauma, damaged self-confidence and other emotional scars caused by years of abuse. In addition, as a means of control, abusers often undermine their partner's parenting which is later reflected when the child grows up and starts a family of their own.

Children whose mothers are abused sometimes suffer at the hands of their mothers as well. One study found the rate of child abuse by mothers who were beaten is at least double that of mothers whose husbands did not assault them. This statistic may be a reflection of an abuse victim venting their pain, suffering and frustration on someone smaller and weaker than them. Mothers may also severely punish their children at the direction of their abuser or to keep the abuser from inflicting a more severe beating than they administer.

Children of all ages are deeply affected by domestic violence and by child abuse. Infants exposed to violence may not develop attachments to their caretakers – attachments which are critical to their development. In some extreme cases, they may suffer from failure to thrive, unable to grow and gain weight. Preschool children in violent homes may regress developmentally and suffer sleep disturbances including nightmares. School-age children who witness violence exhibit a range of behaviors including depression, anxiety, and violence, isolation, inability to interact appropriately with others and learning disabilities.

The Impact Continues

The impact of domestic violence and child abuse may continue through adolescence and adulthood. Adolescents who have grown up in violent homes are at risk for repeating the cycle of the abusive relationships with which they have grown up. They statistically are more likely to attempt suicide, abuse drugs and alcohol, run away from home, engage in teenage prostitution, be sexually active at an earlier age, have interactions with law enforcement and the juvenile justice system and commit sexual assault crimes. A study conducted by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention found 70% of adolescents who lived in families with parental conflict self-reported violent delinquency, compared to 49% of adolescents from households without conflict. This study also indicated that exposure to multiple forms of violence, including domestic violence, child abuse, and general family climate of hostility, doubles the risk of self-reported youth violence.

The overlap between child abuse and domestic violence is not limited to their consequences. Many of the risk factors highly associated with child maltreatment are the same factors which put women at risk for domestic violence and children at risk for juvenile violence. Child abuse risk factors include teenage parents, social isolation, lack of family support, poverty, parental substance abuse and the abuser's history of being a victim of child abuse or a witness to domestic violence as a child.

In addition, research on domestic violence risk factors shows that women in low-income households experience a higher rate of violence by an intimate partner than women in households with higher incomes. The rate of intimate partner violence against women generally decreases as household income levels increase. Also, women aged 16-24 experience the highest per capita rates of domestic violence, and slightly more than half of female victims have children under the age of 12.

Social isolation is a strong factor in many families in which either domestic violence or child abuse is present, although it is not always clear whether the isolation causes the abuse or whether the abuse causes the isolation as the abuser navigates his family aware from others in an effort to conceal his or her actions. A study of the social support and social network relationships of neglecting and non-neglecting, low-income, single, African-American mothers found that differences in the way mothers perceived their adult relationships impacted their interactions with their children as well. The study found that negative adult relationships were an important factor between neglecting and non-neglecting mothers. The relationships of neglecting mothers were characterized by conflict and distrust while non-neglecting mothers reported supportive relationships which emphasized a sense of partnership and fairness.

Intergenerational Issues

Various studies have shown children growing up in violent families are more likely to engage in violence. Furthermore, social and economic risk factors for youth violence relate to risk factors for domestic violence and child abuse, according to the Family Violence Prevention Fund. This situation may create a never ending intergenerational cycle that without specific primary, secondary and tertiary intervention will not stop.

Researchers have also found that men who as children witnessed domestic violence were twice as likely to abuse their own wives as those who did not come from families suffering from domestic violence. A significant proportion of abusive husbands witnessed their mothers being beaten. Domestic violence and child abuse are training grounds for the next generation of abusers and violent juveniles as children become desensitized to violence and model their behavior after the authoritative adults in their lives.

In 1994 there were approximately 2.9 million reports of child abuse and neglect. Data from a 1995 Gallup Poll of family violence suggest that from 1.5 to 3.3 million children witness parental domestic violence each year.

Finally, a significant portion of child abusers, domestic violence perpetrators, and violent juvenile offenders grew up being abused themselves and/or witnessing their parents' domestic violence. However, exposure to child abuse or domestic violence as a child is not the only risk factor for juvenile violence. Living in an impoverished community riddled with drugs, guns, and crime, having parents that use harsh or erratic discipline, and being isolated from the community, family, or school - all of these also put children at higher risk. These factors are, again, strikingly similar to those contributing to both forms of family violence.

Women Revictimized

Women who are physically and/or sexually abused in childhood are at risk of being victims of abuse as adults, according to a study in the August 11, 2004 edition of the medical journal, The Lancet. Survey explored the link between child abuse and domestic and sexual violence in adult life, finding that child abuse “substantially increases” the risk of revictimization in adulthood.
The study – written by Jeremy Coid, Ann Petruckevitch, Gene Feder, Wai-Shan Chung, Jo Richardson and Stirling Moorey – is based on a survey of 1,207 women between the ages of 16 and 85 years old who attended primary care practices in East London. The survey assessed the prevalence of self-reported childhood and adult abusive and traumatic experiences, measured the association between childhood and adult abuse, tested for associations between different forms of abuse and identified key factors in the relationship between childhood and adult abuse.

The survey asked the women about their experiences with child abuse, domestic and sexual violence in adult life. Twenty percent of women surveyed reported experiencing unwanted sexual intercourse or sexual activities but not intercourse during childhood; 17 percent reported being severely beaten at least one occasion as a child; 41 percent of women survey reported experiencing domestic violence and 17 percent reported being raped or the victim of sexual assault as an adult.
The study concludes that “childhood abuse is independently associated with adult abuse and trauma.” All three types of child abuse – unwanted sexual intercourse, unwanted sexual activity and physical abuse – are “associated with an increased risk of adult abuse.” The study also found specific links between each form of child abuse and different types of abuse in adult life.
Severe abuse in childhood, was defined in the study as unwanted sexual intercourse and being severely beaten. It was associated with generalized adult abuse. The study found that victims of severe childhood abuse wee at increased risk to experience both sexual and physical abuse in adulthood. Less severe experiences of childhood abuse were associated with similar forms of abusive experience in adulthood, according to the study. Childhood victims of unwanted sexual activity, not including intercourse, were more likely to be victims of rape, sexual assault and other trauma in adulthood. But, the study found unwanted sexual activity in childhood was not specifically associated with domestic violence in adult life.

Links between childhood abuses and adulthood also impact intervention and prevention efforts.
Victims of abuse during childhood are at risk for revictimization as adults, concludes the study, which calls for more research to explore the link between the two. The study highlights the need for health care providers and their patients to discuss abuse in both childhood and adult life.
“Childhood experiences are infrequently reported to health care professionals, and the contribution of multiple abuse to adult psychopathology can be missed,” it says. “When these adult women present to services for help with the consequences of childhood abuse, clinicians might not realize that abuse and trauma might currently be taking place or that these women continue to be at high risk of abuse in the future.”
Once more is known about the relation between child abuse and domestic and sexual violence in adult life, effective intervention and prevention programs can be developed. The study concludes with a call for more research to “investigate therapeutic interventions for girls and young women who have experienced childhood abuse and are at risk of abuse in adulthood.”

Another recent study in Chicago demonstrated a strong correlation between violence rates and community cohesion. Researchers found several neighborhoods with characteristics generally associated with high crime rates, such as poverty, unemployment and single-parent households, nevertheless had low rates of violence. The common factor in these neighborhoods was high levels of trust, common values and cohesion in neighborhoods.

The study concluded that "the combined measure of informal social control and cohesion and trust remained a robust predictor of lower rates of violence."

Recognizing Overlap

Child welfare and domestic violence organizations are now beginning to recognize the overlap between domestic violence and child abuse and the need for collaborative efforts between the two fields. In the few communities where child welfare agencies and domestic violence programs have developed collaborations aimed at intervening in both forms of family violence, early results are promising. These efforts have underscored the need for collaborative efforts to focus on identifying these families earlier on in the cycle of family violence, and on preventing the violence in the first place. In Illinois, members of domestic violence agencies are being taught to screen for child abuse while assisting adult women, while workers for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services have added a screening tool to their intake component to assess for domestic violence while investigation child abuse and neglect reports in families.

Unfortunately, there has never been a comprehensive community-based prevention and/or early intervention program addressing all three interrelated types of violence - child abuse, domestic violence, and youth violence. The overlapping cycle of these forms of violence provides a strong link between the three and leads one to believe that a collaborative comprehensive prevention effort would address and reduce incidents of all three.

Until then, the recycle is destine to repeat itself, creating new generations of abusers and victims.

More by this Author

Comments 2 comments

K J Page profile image

K J Page 3 years ago from Pacific Northwest

As a survivor of domestic abuse I can identify and verify the above. I have seen its affects on my children and grandchildren. I wrote a book about it...about the search for the causes and I found them in the past - his a childhood of abuse as was his mothers. A doctor at a recent world conference looked at my book - ten in years in the writing - and said "You've written what we're just finding out."

Winter Maclen profile image

Winter Maclen 3 years ago from Illinois Author

I am sorry for your experience but at least those currently experiencing abuse can learn that they can escape and live peacefully.

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.

    Click to Rate This Article