Domestic Violence and Child Abuse

With recent media attention being placed on domestic violence I felt this was a good time for a discussion on the correlation between domestic 
violence and child abuse.  Individuals  interested in the welfare of foster youth  must be aware of the correlation between domestic violence, child 
abuse, and the mental health impacts that witnessing and/or experiencing domestic violence has on a child’s brain and behavioral development.  
Each year, an estimated six-million youth experience child abuse, and an estimated ten million children witness domestic violence.  Of reported cases 
of child abuse, 64% of mothers and 36.8% of the fathers are found to be the main perpetrators.  More than four children die every day from child 
abuse, 70% of those deaths are of youth under the age of three.  In 2012, of the reported 1,593 youth who died 69.9% suffered from neglect, 44.3% 
had been abused, and 80% of the deaths were caused by parents acting alone, together, or with the help of a friend.  Of the same 1,593 children 
who died in 2012, the mother was solely responsible for 27.1% of the deaths, mother and father acted together in 21.2% of the fatalities, and fathers 
killed the children alone in 17.1% of the cases.  In 2012, thirty one states reported that 20.1% of child fatalities occurred in homes in which domestic 
violence was known to be present, 8.5% of child deaths occurred in homes that had been involved with Child Protective Services , and 2.2% of the 
youth had been in foster care and reunited with their families.  In a study investigating abuse in 6,000 American families’ researchers found that 50% 
of men who abused their wives also abused their children . Studies show that 59% of mothers’ of abused children are battered by their male partners.  
In 41% of cases in which children are hospitalized or killed by their fathers, the mothers’ are victims of domestic violence.  
Historically child abuse and domestic violence were considered topics which should be dealt with quietly at home, out of view of the public eye.   
Domestic violence and child abuse have now been in the public sphere for fifty years.  Numerous studies show that domestic violence and child abuse 
affect the mental health and cognitive development of children and that these negative consequences last through their adult lives.  The very real 
consequences that mental illness, drug use, and criminal activity have on society make it impossible for anyone to continue ignoring the issue of 
domestic violence and child abuse.   

Prenatal Development
21% of women are abused during their pregnancies.  When a pregnant woman is a victim of domestic abuse the amount of stress she is under can 
have detrimental effects on her unborn child.  Research shows that children exposed to high amounts of stress hormones during pregnancy have a 
high risk of developing a severe mental illnesses during childhood. Stress hormones compromise the development of the fetal nervous system which 
leads to gross motor difficulties and cognitive disabilities during the first five years of a child’s life. Extensive research has linked mental health 
disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, depression, attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder, anxiety disorders, depression, and mood disorders in 
individuals who were exposed to high amounts of cortisol, during their prenatal development, caused by their mothers being under high amounts of 
Domestic abuse of pregnant women causes premature birth. Adults who were born prematurely are 2.9 times more likely to have depression, 7.4 
times more likely to have bipolar disorder, and 2.5 times more likely to have or develop schizophrenia than adults we were born after 37 weeks.
Birth through Three
Children who witness domestic violence between the ages of zero and three develop a multitude of problem behaviors and mental health disorders 
such as anxiety and depression.  Children who witness domestic violence at this life stage tend to be moody, irritable, act immaturely, experience 
developmental regression, are overly clingy of their caregivers, are withdrawn from their caregivers, display aggressive behaviors, experience sleep 
disturbances, do not socialize with other children, and some develop post-traumatic stress disorder.  Children who witness and experience domestic 
violence also have slower neurological functioning which causes poor school performance.  
Studies found that many children who witness and experience domestic violence at a young age do not display many negative and telling symptoms 
until they enter into preschool. This delay in signs of negative reactions to domestic violence is called the sleeper effect and occurs when a child 
witnesses or experiences domestic violence between the ages of zero and three and the abuse stops before they reach the age of four.  When these 
youth enter into preschool they are not any more aggressive than their classmates but over the course of five years their aggressive behaviors 
escalate despite a lack of current abuse or exposure to violence in their lives.  
Adults who experienced and/or witnessed domestic violence during the first three years of their life are found to be more violent than adults who did 
not, and have higher levels of mental illness. These adults also performed poorly in school during their youth due to cognitive dysfunctions.  

Three through Twelve
Children age’s three to twelve who witness domestic violence develop a host of behavioral, emotional and cognitive problems. Children who witness 
domestic violence exhibit aggressive behaviors, antisocial behaviors, are depressed, are anxious, hold high levels of anger, are hostile, display 
oppositional behavior, are disobedient, are introverted, have low self-esteem, and have poor relationships with their siblings, teachers, and peers. 
These youth also perform poorly in school, have low scores on assessments of verbal, motor, and cognitive skills, show a lack of conflict resolution 
skills, have limited problem solving skills, believe pro-violence behaviors are acceptable and believe in gender stereotypes. Other effects of 
witnessing domestic violence include bedwetting, poor hygiene, bullying behaviors, immature behaviors, lying, poor impulse control, and an inability to 
maintain friendships.
Children who experience abuse during these ages display all of the aforementioned behaviors and mental health complications.  Studies show that 
the youth who experienced abuse as well as witnessed domestic abuse were more negatively affected than those who only witnessed trauma because 
their brains and thyroid did not develop correctly due to the stress caused by the abuse.  Due to the structural changes in the brain, children who 
experience domestic abuse suffer from depression, anxiety, post-traumatic-stress, and chemical dependency at higher levels than the general 
Adults who witnessed and/or experienced domestic violence when they were children are more likely die young, become romantically involved with/or 
marry an abuser; and roughly 30% of them abuse their spouse and children.

Thirteen through Eighteen
Children who experience and or witness domestic violence for the first time during their teen years have less emotional and mental health problems 
than younger children; this is attributed to their being able to cognitively understand what they see and feel which allows them to develop healthier 
coping mechanisms.  Teens who experience or witness domestic violence perform poorly in school, have high levels of anxiety, become involved in 
criminal behavior, participate in risky sexual behaviors, have low-self-esteem, blame themselves for the violence and abuse, are suicidal, and become 
involved in abusive.
Studies have shown that the majority of teenagers who are delinquent, use drugs, skip school, or underachieve academically had witnessed or were 
exposed to domestic violence.  Research investigating the long term mental health consequences for individuals who experience domestic violence 
for the first time during their teen years is lacking.  The few comprehensive studies into the effects of domestic violence on adolescent mental health 
state that teens are at a high of a risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, becoming an abuser during their adult lives, 
and suffering from a drug dependency.

If actions are taken to decrease domestic violence the number of individuals requiring mental health services, drug rehabilitation, and criminal 
punishment will decrease.  Reduction in those areas will lead to a relief in financial burdens placed on our social welfare and criminal justice systems.  
The magnitude of the role domestic violence and child abuse play in the social ills of society is monstrous.  Now that society is aware of the 
consequences of domestic violence it must be combated.