The Silent Witnesses to Domestic Violence

It is a staggering fact: according to a Princeton University study, anywhere from 3.3 to 10 million children are exposed to domestic violence every year (Carter, Wheithorn and Behrman 1999). Unfortunately, this number keeps growing. In households plagued with domestic violence, children become silent witnesses, especially children younger than 10 years old. Young children may not be able to accurately describe the situation at home to other adults in their lives and, therefore, decide not to disclose the violence to other people at all.


In a study conducted about parents separating after having a history of domestic violence, children were asked if they had been the victims of violence in their homes. According to the study, 55% of the children had been physically abused, and 85% had suffered emotional abuse (Neckles 2000). It is important to note that much of the research focusing on domestic violence in the home, suggests that there is a strong connection between domestic violence and child abuse. This being said, exposure to both domestic violence and child abuse can cause devastating consequences in children of all ages.

Due to the continuous disruption commonly seen in homes with a history of domestic violence or child abuse, children fall victim to emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and attitudinal difficulties (LaLiberte, Bills, Shin, et al., 2010). It is common for children with exposure to these traumatic events to show behaviors normally viewed as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. If a child “re-experiences the traumatic event”, then they are also experiencing the same emotions that they felt during the violence. (Nelms 1994). This can cause emotional overload, and lead to meltdowns, tantrums, or fear.

This also leads to avoidance of everyday situations and interactions, in fear that the child may experience a violent interaction with another person. Another PTSD symptom associated with children who have been exposed to domestic violence or child abuse is the numbing of the child’s responses to what can be viewed as bad situations. This is due to repetitive exposure and involvement in horrifying circumstances—which, in turn, causes the child to numb themselves to any pain they may feel because of these situations, whether that be emotion or physical pain. (Nelms 1994).

There are several other lasting effects that prolonged or constant domestic violence exposure causes in children of all ages. According to a study conducted in 2003 by Kitzmann, Gaylord, Holt and Kenny, a child exposed to domestic violence may become unusually disruptive, perform poorly in school, and lack problem-solving skills. Children exposed to violence may also become depressed, overly anxious about everyday situations, and develop phobias or insomnia. A “lack of curiosity and exploration” may occur if the child is very young, and would stop a child from being inquisitive. If a child has a prolonged contact with domestic violence in their home, they may also develop a lack of empathy for others who may be involved in harmful situations elsewhere (Neckles 2000).

Since there is such a strong connection between domestic violence and child abuse, child welfare workers are now being trained on how to screen for domestic violence in their cases. The welfare workers use the Green Book, which is actually titled “Effective Interventions in Domestic Violence & Child Maltreatment: Guidelines for Policy & Practice”. This manual is famous for a scale called the Child Exposure to Domestic Violence scale, or CEDV. The CEDV measures a child’s exposure to domestic violence and maltreatment, and is used to gauge the effects that a child may experience after dealing with violent incidents in the home. The scale is broken up into 6 different sections: level of violence in the home, exposure to violence in the home, involvement in violent events at home, exposure to violence in the community, presence of other risk factors, and other forms of child victimization (LaLiberte, Bills, Shin, et al., 2010). The CEDV helps child welfare workers evaluate a child’s situation, and intervene when necessary.

The CEDV scale used by child welfare workers is HUGE step towards prevention when dealing with a combination of child abuse and domestic violence in a home. However, in order for prevention strategies to take off and become a global norm, changes need to happen on many levels. Not only do child welfare workers need training in order to screen for domestic violence, but pediatricians need this training as well. Pediatricians have direct contact with children during a regular office visit, and can easily screen for domestic violence in the home during regular checkups. Unfortunately, many pediatricians are not trained for this kind of screening, and do not take classes focusing on domestic violence in medical school. Therefore, a very large amount of pediatricians do not feel qualified or prepared to screen for domestic violence during office visits, and feel that they need extensive training to do. This can be fixed with extensive training for pediatricians and regular primary care doctors as well.

Although children are the silent witnesses to domestic violence, we do not have to be silent about the effects of domestic violence on children of all ages.

We need to SPEAK UP.

We need to TRAIN those who work with children, and help them be capable of screening for violence in the home.

We need to EDUCATE those around us about the dangers of exposing children to this kind of violence.

We need to PREVENT domestic violence, and use every resource we have to do just that.

Beth Cohen

Speranza Human Compassion Project

Champions for Safe Homes ~ Champions for Families ~ Champions for Women

LaLiberte, Traci, Jessie Bills, Narae Shin, and Jeffrey L. Edleson. “Child welfare professionals’ responses to domestic violence exposure among children.” Children and Youth Services Review 32.12 (2010): 1640-1647. Print.

Carter, Lucy Salcido , Lois A. Weithorn, and Richard E. Behrman. “Domestic Violence and Children: Analysis and Recommendations.” The Future of Children 9.3 (1999): 4-20. Print.

Kitzmann, Katherine M, Noni K Gaylord, Aimee Holt, and Erin D Kenny. “Child Witnesses to Domestic Violence: A Meta-Analytic Review.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 71.2 (2003): 339-352. Print.

Neckles, Carmaen. “Child Contact and Domestic Violence.” Probation Journal 47.3 (2000): 212-213. Print.

Nelms, BC. “Domestic Violence: Children are Victims Too!.” Journal of pediatric health care: official publication of National Association of Pediatric Nurse Associates & Practitioners 8.5 (1994): 201-202. Print.


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