When thinking about domestic violence, especially from the standpoint of criminal charges, we typically think of it in terms of the perpetrator (the defendant) and the victim (the accuser). But domestic violence spares no one in the families where it happens, and there are other victims to consider. As many as 90 percent of domestic violence incidents are witnessed by the children in the home, and these children are also victims of the violence, even if they are not direct victims of child abuse.
Overall, the research is clear: Children caught in the storm of domestic violence typically carry the scars into adulthood, and the impacts frequently manifest in psychological and behavioral ways. The fact is, the children can’t help but be affected. The question is, how much does domestic abuse affect children? Does witnessing spousal abuse predetermine a child’s fate? Will they inevitably become either abusers or the abused in their adult relationships? Let’s look at this issue to see what we can learn.
The Psychological Impact of Witnessing Spousal Abuse
Let’s start our discussion by looking at how witnessing domestic violence can affect children psychologically in general.
Trauma and its Long-term Effects
Simply put, domestic violence is traumatic to children. When they are exposed to domestic violence—not just as direct victims but as witnesses to the violence–the resulting trauma can manifest in various ways over time, such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, risky sexual behavior, and post-traumatic stress disorder, among other things. Such emotional disturbances can also interfere with their ability to form healthy adult relationships, leading them to seek or tolerate abusive behaviors, as we will see momentarily.
Repetition of Learned Behavior
Behavioral psychologists highlight the “modeling theory,” suggesting that children learn by observing. Witnessing spousal abuse can inadvertently teach them that violence is an acceptable way to resolve conflicts or exert control. Consequently, they might mirror such behaviors in their adult relationships. One study in particular indicates that young children who witness spousal abuse tend to learn the following things from their experience:
- Violence is an appropriate way to resolve conflicts.
- Violence is a part of family relationships.
- The perpetrator of violence in intimate relationships often goes unpunished.
- Violence is a way to control other people.
The Cycle of Violence
A study published by the Journal of Marriage and Family found that there is indeed a link between witnessing domestic violence as a child and becoming a victim or perpetrator of such violence later on. This phenomenon, often called the “intergenerational transmission of violence,” suggests that the cycle of abuse is not easily broken.
Growing Up to Become Abuse Victims
Children who witness domestic violence in their homes often grow up with distorted perceptions of what normal relationships should look like. They may internalize the violence they’ve observed, leading to a belief that such behavior is acceptable or even expected in their adult relationships. This normalization of abusive behavior can make them more susceptible to entering and staying in abusive relationships. They may not recognize the signs of abuse or believe they deserve such treatment due to low self-esteem stemming from their childhood experiences. Additionally, abusers may seek out partners they perceive as vulnerable or conditioned to accept abusive behavior, increasing the risk for these individuals to become abuse victims in adulthood.
Growing Up to Become Abusers
Children learn and internalize the behaviors they observe. Since children look to their parents’ examples as benchmarks for how the world works, this exposure can distort their understanding of healthy relationships and appropriate conflict resolution when they observe one parent abusing the other. As they grow older, these children may unconsciously adopt the abusive behaviors they witnessed, especially if they have not received help or therapy to understand and break the cycle of violence. This is because such behavior might seem normal or acceptable for them as it was a part of their formative environment. They may also emulate the abuse to exert control, reflecting the dynamics they observed during their childhood.
Is My Child Guaranteed to Become an Abuser or a Victim if They Observe Domestic Violence?
No. While they are statistically at higher risk, not all children who witness domestic violence fall into a binary category of becoming either the perpetrator or the victim. However, the impact on their lives should not be understated. The trauma can manifest in many different ways, and while many children living in abusive homes will become neither abusers nor abused, it’s naive to presume they haven’t been traumatized and won’t require some form of help. Let’s talk about some ways you can help your children if they have witnessed domestic violence:
- Seek Professional Help: Engage the services of a professional counselor or therapist who specializes in child trauma. They can provide appropriate strategies and therapeutic techniques to help your child process their experiences.
- Open Communication: Encourage your child to express their feelings about what they’ve witnessed. Reassure them that their feelings are valid and that talking about them is okay.
- Provide Reassurance: Reiterate that the violence was not their fault and they did nothing to cause it. Ensure them that their safety is your priority.
- Maintain Routine: Keep routines and daily schedules consistent as much as possible. This helps provide a sense of security and normalcy.
- Educate About Healthy Relationships: Teach your children about healthy relationships. Explain that violence is never acceptable to solve problems or express anger.
- Promote Self-Expression: Encourage your child to express themselves through art, music, writing, or other creative outlets. This can provide a healthy way for them to process their feelings.
- Model the Solution: One of the best ways to encourage a child to accept help is to seek help yourself–especially if you were the one who became violent in the relationship. Taking responsibility for your actions, seeking treatment, and retraining yourself to model better responses can help show your child a better way to manage conflict, even if they were previously shown the wrong way.
If you are facing domestic violence criminal charges, your first step toward recovery is to deal with the legal challenges in front of you. Call our offices today for nonjudgmental legal representation navigating the court processes of domestic violence charges in Los Angeles.