Clinical Reference Systems: Pediatric Advisor 10.0
Family Violence: The Effects on Children
Family violence is a major social and criminal problem in
our society. Adult family violence is violence between the
adults residing in the home. This violence affects children
directly and indirectly. It may affect children's
performance in school, their friendships and other
relationships, and their emotional development. Children
are hurt simply by seeing or hearing violence between
trusted adults in their homes. In addition, their
developmental and emotional needs often remain unmet because
the abused or abusive adults are not able to properly care
What is adult family violence?
It is any violent behavior between adults in the home.
Behaviors of concern include the more obvious ones such as
hitting, slapping, kicking, biting, grabbing, pushing,
throwing things, and threatening with a weapon. However,
violent behavior also includes verbal threats and name
calling. Family violence often exists along with substance
abuse. Most frequently the victims of violence are women
(the battered woman syndrome). However, sometimes both the
man and woman are both abusers and victims. In any case,
family violence can have serious long-term effects on
children who reside in the home.
How does family violence affect children?
Witnessing violence between trusted adults has a more
profound effect on a child's development than television and
movies ever could. Children often see the violence. Even
if they do not see it, they may well hear it. And even if
they can't hear it, they will always feel the effects of
violence in their home. They may hear about the violence
from adult conversation. They may see how the violence
affects their parents. They may be abused themselves either
by being caught in the crossfire or later as victims of
violence themselves. Children in violent homes are at
increased risk for serious physical and sexual abuse.
Children are never safe from family violence.
How profoundly violence affects children depends, in part,
on the extent and severity of the violence, especially if
verbal or psychological threats are used ("Next time
you..., I'll kill you"). It also depends on the ability of
the parent or parents to continue to function as loving
caretaker(s). Being a loving parent is often difficult for
both the adult victim and the abuser.
Though the more profound effects occur in older children,
even infants can sense something is wrong and experience
problems in feeding, play, and other daily activities.
Infants disrupted by adult violence may become fussier.
The fussiness can increase an infant's own risk of becoming
a target of the violence. Child-rearing problems often
precipitate violence between adults. For example, an
argument over who should change the baby may lead to a
Older children may imitate the violent behavior they
witness. Some children externalize their behavior and
become aggressive, cruel, disobedient, and destructive,
other children internalize their behavior in the form of
sadness, withdrawal, fear, and anxiety. Violence between
siblings, as an offshoot of adult violence, can also
adversely affect a child's development. Children in violent
homes have poor impulse control, poor self-esteem, and poor
peer relations. They perform less well in school.
Adolescents from violent homes engage in more risk-taking
behavior and may themselves become violent adults.
How can children be protected from family violence?
Parents in homes where family violence exists must recognize
the bad effects of such behavior on children. They must take
steps to stop the violence and protect their children:
- The perpetrator(s) of the violence may need to enter a
- The adult victim (usually female) and the children may
have to leave the perpetrator (usually male). Community
family violence shelters have staff available to assist
in development of a plan to help both the adult victim
and the children. See the yellow pages for referral
- If the children show symptoms, they need to be evaluated
and treated. Adult victims often need treatment as
There is only one way to protect children: The violence
must stop. If there is violence in your home, call your
child's physician's office for help in stopping it. In case
of emergency, call the police or go to the hospital.