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Domestic violence affects a direct victim such as a mother or father and then the children become secondary victims. A family is a unit that if it does not function cohesively the unit is disrupted in its entirety. All members become affected. Statically, on average, 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States. Exposure to domestic violence falls under the branch of child maltreatment. The exposure of domestic violence includes a child witnessing physical and/or psychological violence between adults, involves a child overhearing the violence and seeing the results of the violence such as injury and/or emotional destruction. Research indicates that children who are residing in homes which expose them to domestic violence, are at a heightened risk for becoming victims of physical aggression themselves. The effects of domestic violence on children can be everlasting and extremely determinantal to a child’s psychological, emotional, physical, and social wellbeing which directly correlates with adverse effects.

Cognitive Impact

Exposure to domestic violence can drastically potentially affect a child throughout the course of their lifespan. The cycle of abuse involves tension building up over common domestic issues, followed by an acute battering episode, and made up with a honeymoon phase, domestic violence interrelates with constant emotions of uncertainty, fear, and stress that all impact cognitive development in children.

Brain Development

Batters will administer any forms of abuse psychological, emotional, and/or physical abuse to hurt a woman. For example, during pregnancy a woman has many changes taking place in her body physically. Emotional stress and abuse can be extremely detrimental not only to the pregnant woman but to the fetus as well. During a batter’s episode of abuse, the pregnant woman’s body is likely to go into fight or flight mode that elevates cortisol levels in response to the stress associated with domestic violence situations directly affecting the baby’s brain development. That stress can be passed down to the child that’s in her womb. Furthermore, direct injury to the fetus can also affect a baby’s development. Research has found that there is a correlation between physical changes that occur within the central nervous system affecting the development of a child’s brain because of domestic violence. Scientifically, if a brain does not develop healthy it can lead to future challenges for the child emotionally, psychologically, and behaviorally.

Research conveys that the most crucial years for brain development relative to a child’s development occurs during the first three years of their life. After the first three years, the brain continues to develop throughout childhood however, the foundation is set by the age of three. The effects of domestic violence is traumatizing to a child which affects their brains ability to process information including emotional regulation capabilities. The trauma from domestic violence directly correlates negatively with their attachment styles, emotional regulation, and impulse control. As a result, the child is likely to face developmental challenges emotionally, cognitively, psychologically, and socially. The brain is powerful and is constantly being utilized to process and retrieve information. When the developmental process of the brain is negatively impacted it creates an increased likelihood for the child to encounter learning difficulties, reduction of memory, decreased social competence, less empathy for others, a lack of relational skills, difficulty with processing their own emotions, and difficulty recognizing other’s emotions, which negatively affects their interpersonal relationships. Early intervention is key for children that have been exposed to domestic violence.

Educational Outcomes

As a result of the stress a child is enduring their brain development is being hindered which directly affects a child’s academic performance. Mother’s have difficulty with parenting because of the domestic violence which affects their child’s behaviors and development (Yoo & Huang, 2012). When a child has a weak familial foundation their likelihood to thrive in a positive manner decreases whereas if child has a healthy familial foundation, they are more likely to reach their fullest potential easier. Because of poor quality parenting research illustrates that it correlates with decreased cognitive development for a child being exposed to domestic violence (Enlow et al., 2012). The stress from the exposure to domestic violence negatively interrelates with a child’s academic performance.

Psychological Impact

Domestic violence negatively impacts the mental health of those exposed to repeated episodes of emotional, sexual, and/or physical violence creating trauma.

Attachment Formation

During childhood, a child will form attachments that are naturally secure or insecure which relates with their adaptive or maladaptive skills. Initially, attachment formation occurs with family members as they are the first interactions a child has during infancy. Insecure attached children display more behavioral, emotional, psychological, and self-esteem difficulties, contrary to secure children Attachment is vital psychologically and affects a child’s social skills while they learn how to make friends. Insecurely attached children struggle with establishing healthy friendships and maintaining them over the years. Studies indicate that mother’s play an imperative role relative to a child’s emotional health and father’s play an impactful role in attachment relative to behavior regulation. The manipulation and abuse the child is exposed to creates fear and distrust which directly impacts their attachment style. Therefore, the emphasis on attachment is imperative to the psychological impact of children being exposed to domestic violence.

Psychological Disorders

Children who are exposed to domestic violence are at risk for developing psychological disorders which include yet are not limited to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, etc. The repeated trauma a child is exposed to in a household involving domestic violence has potential to increase the likelihood for psychological disorders to develop. The vicious cycle involves trauma and affects a child’s physical and mental health. The cycle creates an instability and affects the child psychologically. Children with traumatic histories relative to PTSD symptoms include the child suffering abuse directly or through interpersonal violence in their home environment When a child resides in an environment involving domestic violence the constant fear, anxiousness, and tension creates instability and psychological despair which ultimately hinders the child’s development.

Physical Impact

Children are susceptible to physical injury and physical illness because of the immense stress a child endures within the household involving domestic violence. The ACE’s study illustrates the impact of stress and its relationship to physical health over the course of an individual’s lifespan.

Physical Symptoms and Illness

Children dealing with toxic stress due to living in a negative household environment involving domestic violence are likely to manifest physical symptoms. The toxicity of the stress can wreak havoc on a child’s immune system and physical functioning leading to psychosomatic distress headaches, stomach aches, and general feelings of sickness. The chronic nature of the stress creates child traumatic stress which can take hold due to the exposure of repeated domestic violence. De Jong (2016) documents “a critical factor for the developing child is that events that threaten their safety or are frightening can lead to changes in the way the body reacts initially, and these changes may persist” (p.205). The way a child’s body reacts can drastically affect their physical health. Negative childhood events such as domestic violence exposure intersects with the development of chronic diseases later in adulthood. Chronic stress affects a child living in violent environment even if the child is not directly the abused victim. A child can be affected from the environment through hearing, witnessing, and experiencing the aftermath of the abuse.

Social Isolation

A common belief is that violence is a learned behavior for a child. Therefore, a child is likely to model what they are witnessing or hearing at home during their social interactions. A child living in a domestically violent household is likely to be withdrawn, anti-social, and introverted due to their lack of trust and stability from their homes life. A child may isolate to protect themselves as they often misinterpret social prompts. Social isolation manifests also due to the insecure attachment they may have with their parent/s. Social isolation is one way a child may cope while growing up in an abusive household however, every child will react differently to their home environment.


Children growing up in domestic violence households need extra support and therapeutic interventions to help them thrive to their fullest potential. The effects of a child being exposed to domestic violence can have short term effects or long-term effects therefore, early intervention is crucial. Therapeutic interventions have been effective in helping children exposed to domestic violence. Cognitive behavioral therapy, trauma informed therapy, art therapy, and many other therapeutic interventions have been proven effective. Children display their emotions through their behavior/s. With early intervention, it provides the potential for a child, to learn strategies and coping skills to help a child reach their fullest potential. Every child matures into an adult who eventually becomes the future of our world.

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