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Updated on September 6, 2008

WITNESSING PARENTAL ABUSE – Common effects on children and teens.


  • At least 3 million children in the United States live in abusive households.
  • Children as young as 2 years old will emulate violent behaviors, and may come to perceive them as normal.
  • An abused parent may not be able to respond appropriately and/or consistently to a child’s needs, negatively affecting the parent-child bond.

Exposure to domestic violence during early childhood affects:

  • A child’s developing brain and nervous system
  • Every developmental process that the child will experiences as he/she grows up.

Significant damage may occur even when the child is not consciously aware of violence in the home!


  • Half of the girls whose mothers are battered will become involved with abusive men.
  • As many as 75 percent of children who see their fathers battering their mothers have behavioral problems.
  • A history of family violence is one of the greatest predictors of juvenile delinquency.
  • The rate of partner abuse was 1000% higher for men who observed domestic violence in their childhood than for men who came from families without violence.
  • Children and adolescents in families in which domestic violence has occurred are 6–15 times more likely to be abused than those who are not
  • In cases of more severe domestic violence, child abuse may coexist in as many as 77 percent of cases.
  • Domestic violence perpetrators often use children and adolescents as a control tactic against adult victims by:

— claiming the children’s bad behavior is the reason for the assaults on the non- offending parent;

— threatening violence against children and their pets in front of the non-offending parent;

— holding them hostage or abducting them in an effort to punish the adult victim or to gain compliance;

— talking negatively to them about the abused parent’s behavior


Definition - Trauma: Any experience that poses overwhelming physical and/or psychological threats, and cause extreme fear and a sense of powerlessness.


• Complex changes in brain and body

• “Fight or Flight” response

• The impact of trauma may vary from:

  • Temporary loss of sense of trust in life and others
  • Long term and severe symptoms such as depression, anxiety, phobias and other psychological problems

Definition - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): The long-term symptoms caused by trauma, which disrupt an individual's capacity to function.

Traumatic stress – is produced by exposure to events so extreme or severe and threatening, that they demand extraordinary coping efforts. These events:

  • are often unpredicted and uncontrollable.
  • can overwhelm a person's sense of safety and security

PTSD - involves patterns of avoidance and hyper-arousal.

  • Victims may begin to organize their lives around avoidance of pain caused by their trauma

CHILDHOOD EXPOSURE TO DOMESTIC VIOLENCE - is related to higher rates of PTSD and other adverse consequences in childhood and in later life than other “non-personal” traumatic events or acts of violence (accidents, natural disasters. . .) . . . . . . . . . . . . WHY?


Children who witness violence in their homes often feel betrayed.

Their pain is caused by the very people who are supposed to love and protect them. Both the domestic violence aggressor and victim are the child’s PRIMARY ROLE MODELS for learning about social and emotional relationships. The child’s core feelings in this situation are:

  • “There is no safe or protected place for me”
  • “My caregiver cannot protect her/himself . . . and, therefore, can’t protect me”




  • feel split down the middle - loves both parents
  • conflicted – what I see happening compared to what I am told happened
  • sent many mixed messages

For example - argument overheard by child:

“If you hadn’t made me so angry I wouldn’t have had to hit you!”

The child learns:

  • one isn’t responsible for their own actions
  • it is okay to hurt or be hurt by someone you love if they do something to make you angry

SCARED Are constantly worried about the safety of the victim.

GUILTY – Often blame themselves and feel responsible for the violence

“If I was a better kid and didn’t get in trouble mom wouldn't get hit . . .”

ANGRY – Some children may develop high levels of externalized aggression

  • Easily engage in fights,
  • Destruction of property
  • Other activities, which can have devastating social implications.

ANXIOUS – Some children tend to internalize the anger, which causes:

  • Withdrawal,
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

HELPLESS – The child may feel responsible for protecting the victimized parent and/or their siblings from the aggressor. When their attempts at protection do not work, they feel powerless and angry:

  • with the aggressor for their violence;

  • with the victimized parent for their perceived weakness and/or for doing something to “deserve” the abuse

NUMB - Desensitized to aggressive behavior.

  • As parental violence and aggression become part of the child's “norm” they are increasingly less likely to signal concern or alarm.


  • Easily startled - exaggerated startle response
  • Reluctance to try new things - low self-esteem and lack of confidence
  • Excessive tiredness - sleep difficulties or nightmares
  • Frequent physical complaints - headaches, stomachaches
  • Outbursts of anger - toward peers, adults or self
  • Bullying and/or aggression - toward peers or animals
  • Expressing stereotyped beliefs - rigid male and female roles
  • Perfectionism - upset when self or others are not perfect
  • ADD/ADHD – may display similar symptoms
  • Sadness or withdrawal - from friends and activities
  • “Dissociation” - periods of extreme dreaminess or disconnectedness
  • Eating problems/eating disorders – overeating, binge eating, anorexia, bulimia
  • Self-harming behaviors - cutting, burning
  • Unhealthy or abusive relationships – dating violence as victim or aggressor
  • Use of alcohol, tobacco and other substances
  • School truancy or
  • Running away from home
  • Suicidal thoughts and/or actions


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    • profile image

      kylie O'sullivan 

      19 months ago from monto qld

      Thankyou my eldest is 20 so my homocide by him is not a worry anymore, even though he is the perpetrator ATM. I am more concerned now as my 11 year old boy is at the age barrier for statistics by homicides from boys between 11-20, 63% murder there mums. Its a scary thought. Lucky this boy looks after me, he is a good boy.

    • profile image

      Flor Watts 

      2 years ago

      This is very enlightening for survivors, a must read. Thank you

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      A couple of weeks ago I was in a dark period in my life, the man I love to bits had gone off with someone else, that was when I was told about this Esango Priest. Well he told me he could see that we would get back together that gave me hope, and he was right, because this week we have moved in with each other and we are so happy. A big thank you to Esango Priest. If you are in need of an angel please get in touch with my Esango Priest via

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      I have a viloent silbling still it started at age 2 and now over 40. age 4 and in the hospitel twice.When parents do little to nothing the problem only manifests it self In all parts of your life. For me the abuse only got worse as I got older. So did the Perentel Deniel my Mother drank hevely and stayed away on busness trips. The list of problems and violence grew not Knowing what to do then and now that I do finding help is hard.Ovoiding the siblings violence and all for that mater was a every day gole.Still problems grew Still no parents. As I face the one parent i have left and sibling I feel no trust and need to do something. Growing up the aggressers became many.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      My dad was violent. He was the worst case of an alcoholic. It was as if his kids had to be him we were him. He treated me like I had to be a boy.

      He would act crazy and get weird spontaneous ideas. He hated women. I hid the abuse to feel normal. He did not want his kids to be better than him.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Please get some survivor stories for us to get motivated and feel safe to take an action. My mom is so afraid to take any action and we have been through lot and we want her to at least leave the torture home now, take some legal actions and take compensation for the torture we went through during those 24 years. She's afraid of the social stigma and the way he would present us -vely in front of public again. We just hate that irresponsible money loving psycho person.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      My parents were in a violent relationship for a number of years. Not physically violent but the words might as well of been. I watched many times of the fights between mum and dad from when I was still very young. I remember watching mum cry and crying with her until late most nights. I remember watching dad pack his bags and me standing there begging him just to stay until Christmas. 7 years it's been since they broke up and my dad is in a new relationship that is getting the same way and it's affecting me badly. I know it sounds weak coming from a 19 year old but I have never felt so powerless in my life. Just wanted to know if there was any advice to help get over these feelings.

    • profile image

      Don't ever give up hope 

      7 years ago

      I lived in an abusive crazy man for over 13 years it took leaving him and moving all over the place with our children for 3 years and every time the fear of him drove me back. During the off and on cycle of together and separation I read articles and things like this to learn although I never felt like any of it related to what I was going through..... It was so confusing. Everytime I left I swore it was it I was done. Then everytime I fell for his unbelievable measures that he called love men like this will go to any extreme to convince you with either kindness, the right things when that don't work it's back to scaring you. These years were an eye opening learning experience. The most important thing a woman can do for herself and her children are to see the cycle of this kind of man for me it was like a weekly clock when I recognized it I also recognized that I had a cycle too as my children grew older they started to fit in too. After watching this insane weekly clock, I grew smarter I finally woke up and knew NOTHING I will ever do or say will be right, my children are damaged I ham damaged but luckily we survived it I have a long journey a head of me as a single mom to unteach and reteach my children and I pray with all my might to correct in my children what they have grown to see as normal and teach them about healthy relationships. I must say it is so peaceful and rewarding everyday without having someone ridicule your every move and your every thought.

    • profile image

      australian in need of help 

      8 years ago

      i lived ina physical,emotional and threatening situation... i know the states is different to here and things are done hopefully better in your country. i lived it for 6 years with two young kids. physical didn't always happen but would escalate if the ex wouldn't calm down. i can remember my young son and daughter screaming it was so hard to protect them the fear in their eyes was enough in the end. i decided to leave... the unfortunate thing is he wouldn't let me take my children. i have been battling the court system for nearly a year and have seen my kids once in 12 months which is absolutely tearing my heart out. he continues to tell me what a bad parent i am for abandoning them when he wouldn't give them to me. i ended up having to move interstate where i am from as i had no money no house no belongings. Legal services in australia wont help me. I am left on my own to battle him and try get my children safely with me. The last time i saw my son he seemed down and not the same toward me. I felt as though he doesn't trust me anymore and he thinks i simply just left him there. I do feel like a failure as a mother i should have been strong enough to call the police. But i was always to afraid of what their father would do. And on top of it police don't get involved with child custody battles they told me to go to court. So what do i do? That's the question i now ask. I cant legally take my kids out of the state it will make me look like a bad mother but if i leave them there it makes me look bad also... There is no hope... I feel he does this because he knows they're my world and he knows this would destroy me. Any advice would be fantastic to know how to cope.


    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I grew up witnessing my father domestically abuse my mother. After going to jail "for a few days" (my mom didn't press charges), he stopped being physically abusive and started being extremely controlling and emotionally abusive. Back then it didn't seem "normal" not to fall asleep listening to them argue. My mom would give me the phone and tell me to call the cops if things sound out of control... so I didn't sleep those nights. I just listened to the arguing hearing things no one my age should hear. Fast forward 20 years and I still suffer the consequences. My parents don't argue that much now, but I still don't feel safe with them... def. not my dad. We will never be close. It was horrible growing up and plead with women in similar situations to leave and think about their children.

    • profile image 

      8 years ago

      Hi Marina

      We are a small organisation in the UK working with children who have witnessed domestic violence and would love to use the image of the child looking round the wall holding a teddy bear. Do you hold the copyright to this or could you point us in the direction of who does.

      Hope you can help.

      Kind regards


    • profile image

      julie morgan-thomas 

      9 years ago

      i left my daughters partner when eliza was four and i sent my other daughter who was 13 to her father to protect her elizas father wasn't her father he was a very cruel violent man and i do not understand why they remove a child from the non perpetrator why don't they remove these men and put them into a regisiter likewe have for paedophiles or are there too many abusers out there like policemen or judges or lawyers we just don't know but apparantly in one country the perpetrator is removed from the house and he loses his family and his house this is one way to get men in australia to think again before raising a hand to women and children

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      These are some pretty stark statistics, but I think it is important to also point out that people do actually lead fruitful lives after having experienced domestic violence; and children do not necessarily grow up to be abused. Just pointing it out because it seems like people incorrectly think the only way you become abused is by growing up in an abusive household.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      please let me know the organization to contact to save me 2.5 yrs old daughter from domectic violence. I live in India , me email id is :

    • Contagious! profile image


      9 years ago

      Thank you for this. So useful, and I hope many more read it. If you are interested, I just posted lyric to a song I wrote about this subject, called "When Home is Where the Hurt Is. I wrote it because I have been friends with many who have suffered horrible abuse. Let's hope and pray we can do something to stop the vicious cycle.

      Again, thank YOU for doing something here! :)


    • Marina Rosa profile imageAUTHOR

      Marina Rosa 

      10 years ago from Southern California

      Crystal - Yes, you ar right that it is hard to leave . . . and often just leaving is not enough since no law can protect you from someone who is really determined to do you harm. But I admire and respect the people (women and men) who have somehow overcome and escaped any way they could - and who are no determined not to pass on the tragic legacy of family violence to the next generation.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      I grew up in domestic violence, my father would beat my mother all the time. I have very few memories of the few happy times back then, most of the memories I have is of my mother crying, getting hit, putting on extra makeup to hide the black eyes, stuff like that. It don't bother me that much anymore but its a shame my mother had to go through all that. Even though she left my father, he still stalked us,and always harrassed us too. We were always living in fear of him. When My brother and I got older we were able to stand up to him and put him away. Some people don't realize how hard it was for my mother to leave my father, and how hard it was for my brother,mom, and I to keep running from him all those years.

    • KT pdx profile image

      KT pdx 

      11 years ago from Vancouver, WA, USA

      Been there, gone through that, got counseling once I became an adult and got out of there. Any child going through this should be asked about the points you brought up. They know best of anyone what they're going through. Problem is, because they're children people tend not to believe them. I knew once I got into high school and college psychology classes what I was going through, and that's when I first tried to get out of the situations. It finally worked now, and I have a loving husband and a great marriage, thank God!

    • marisuewrites profile image


      11 years ago from USA

      I too, share your passion, I even get "angry" about the lack of understanding domestic violence gets from professionals even. In my years of raising foster kids, and working with families of abuse, I have seen over and over again, that kids were often just as physically abused as the "mom." -- they were emotionally targeted and used as pawns for the abuser to get "his" way. Sometimes mothers joined in the abuse to please the "abuser." It's a vicious cycle and tangled web of neglect, abuse and power.

      Kids in a domestically violent home are abused children, many ARE hit, but even if they are not; they are scarred. I hope the future is more focused on the needs of these families. thanks for discussing an emotionally charged subject!!

    • Marina Rosa profile imageAUTHOR

      Marina Rosa 

      11 years ago from Southern California

      Thank you REritr and marisue for your comments. I survived 10 years of severe physical, mental and emotional abuse and what finally pushed me to get out was what it was doing to my 2 kids. Even though little or nothing was written about battering back then (the '70's), much less about the effects on kids I could see the damage with my own two eyes (even clouded as they were at that time by my own active addiction to alcohol). Fortunately, much more is known now and society is starting to take notice. I have worked in the field of addiction treatment and recovery and also helping battered women (and men) and their children heal. These issues (addiction, trauma and family violence) are multi-layered, interrelated and intergenerational. Research shows clearly that children who are traumatized in early life by seeing a parent battered or otherwise assaulted grow up without that core feeling that is every child's birthright: an early, consistent and securly attached bond with a nurturing adult caregiver. Instead, these kids learn, before they can even understand language or speak - that there is "no safe place". This creates wounds that will not heal on their own. Many of these children will grow up to "pass it on" - as abusers or abused or both.

      As you've seen first hand, Marisue, the effects of trauma (PTSD) on children is a devastating and lasting. Having worked with so many battered  mothers who still think that their children are not being hurt - and often choose to stay with the batterer in spite of every effort we make, I share your frustration - even though I understand the dynamics of abuse that keeps them stuck.

      These mothers have been crippled and impaired - not only by  their abuse by the batterer, but nearly always by a long history of witnessing and experiencing physical, mental and sexual abuse. It's a complex issue since Child Welfare agencies and Family Courts - aware of the harm being done to the kids - are stepping in more frequently now remove the kids - and rightly so.

      But very little is done to help the mothers to heal from the root causes of their "failures to protect". They are so damaged, dependent and unable to cope that most are not able to make the leap from "victim" to "survivor" without the kind of help that is usually not available to them. T simply leave the abuser does not make a woman "safe". This is one reason that so many find themselves involved with a "new" batterer over and over again.

      Again, thanks for your comments. It is a topic I am passionate about. And special thanks to you, Marisue for being on the front lines drying the tears and doing your best to pick up the shattered pieces.

    • marisuewrites profile image


      11 years ago from USA

      Marina Rosa, thank you for this informative article.  I worked in the field of foster care as both a professional and a front line warrior, foster parenting over 250+ kids in 20 years. 

      Contrary to what one so-called "expert" here on hubs,who shall remain nameless, has said, MANY of the kids came to us from domestic violence situations.  Child abuse and domestic violence go hand in hand, and anyone who says differently is completely and willfully uninformed.  I've been there, I've lived in it trying to be part of the solution, I've had these "kids from hell homes" in my home.

      I appreciate your well-laid out statistics and information.  As a professional counselor to homes with attachment and abusive issues, and a foster parent "on-the-ground" I had a more "full-circle" view than I ever thought was going to be possible.

      When you're holding the hand of a hysterical, rejected and abused child who suffers from PTSD, holding their head while they throw up over the commode, and restraining them when they exhibit their own out of control anger, you have a close up view of the destruction from domestic violence. 

      I repeat many times; the only safe solution is a safe exit out of that hell.  Women (or men) MUST get away.  To say there is no safe exit is to accept defeat.  Being smart, utilizing safe strategy, the victim has to believe he/she can and will get away. 

      The abusers, if they change at all, should work on their issues with no one in the home to abuse while they are in counseling.  This is most frequently a life journey for most abusers.  The changes don't come quickly, and if I were the victim, and was in my early 20's, they will not change while I am at their disposal. 

      GET OUT, is my advice to all victims of any kind of abuse.  Don't tell them you're leaving, don't threaten it, don't hint at it....plan it carefully and GO.  THEN, NEVER go back.  never.  They will plead, they will be soo persuasive.  Never ever go back or meet with them again.  If you must be there at all, go with the sherriff's office at your side.

      Gee, I didn't mean to go on so long, but this is a subject dear to my soul.

      Great job and well written. =)

    • REritr profile image


      11 years ago from California

      I was married to an "occasional" batterer but moreover, a man who used foul words, insults, name-calling, belittling and threats to control his daughter and I. Our daughter showed many of the signs you described, but I chalked it all up to her being brilliant (which she is) and fiercely independent (which she is). When I finally had the courage to leave her father, she was 17 years old. At that time, she told me that all the years I thought I was being strong by trying to keep the family together, she viewed me as weak. And when I finally left, she began to see my strength.

      She and I remain close, thank God. And she has forged a friendship with her father since then that she is able to view at arm's length, depending on whether he is in a relationship, at which time he tends to put her on the back burner. She claims that he has "changed" during the six years since our family unit broke up and, of course, I want to take her at her word, even though I knew that what dwelled within him during our 20 years together has not been eradicated.

      Still I came to realize that he was basically a good man who was a victim of an abusive upbringing himself. And no matter how much love I gave, he would never possess the tools to be the husband and father I wanted him to be.

      Thank you for an informative hub -- one that sheds light on my and many other women's lives.

    • Marina Rosa profile imageAUTHOR

      Marina Rosa 

      11 years ago from Southern California

      Thank you for your comment. The fact that, in most cases of domestic abuse the children ARE watching contributes greatly to the intergenerational nature of this issue! In most abusive families BOTH parents (the abuser and the victim) will tell you that their children are not aware of the violence. Unfortunately, they are.

    • denisewrtr37 profile image


      11 years ago from Philadelphia

      Thanks for posting this. It's more than commentary. You provide eye-opening stats. Like the above poster said, I hope people don't rationalize away abuse in their own lives / families. Many of us do subject our children and "loved ones" to things we simply would not tolerate from someone outside our biological family. Insanity.

      Again - thanks for the post.

    • desert blondie profile image

      desert blondie 

      11 years ago from Palm trees, swimming pools, lots of sand, lots of sunscreen

      Such a powerful column you have here...wish all could read it. Sadly, those engaged, both abusers and victims, I'm betting...will rationalize/excuse away this data with something like "well, in our house it's not really that bad" or some other excuse. People are so willing to do things to their own kids they'd never let someone else do! Informative!


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