Helping Children Exposed to Domestic Violence

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As many as ten million children and adolescents witness violence between their caregivers each year. This kind of violence is called domestic violence or intimate partner violence. The US Department of Justice defines domestic violence as “a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner.” Domestic violence can be verbal, physical, sexual, or psychological. Domestic violence can occur between heterosexual or same sex couples.

Parents or caregivers involved in a violent relationship may think that the fighting does not affect their children. Even children who do not see domestic violence are affected by the conflict in the family. Children may develop serious emotional and behavioral problems. These problems are not always recognized by their parents or caregivers. As a result, children do not always get the help they need.

When there is domestic violence between partners, there is often child abuse as well. Sometimes children get hurt accidentally. Children need to be assessed for their health and safety when domestic violence occurs.

Symptoms to watch out for in young children include:

  • Anxiety or increased fear
  • Depression
  • Loss of interest in school, friends or other things they enjoyed in the past
  • Sleep problems including nightmares or bedwetting
  • Increased aggression
  • Anger
  • Spending more time alone
  • Fighting at home or at school
  • Bullying or being bullied
  • Changes in appetite

Symptoms to watch out for in adolescents include:

  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Skipping school
  • Changes in peer groups
  • New rebellious or oppositional behavior
  • Declining grades
  • Social withdrawal
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Loss of interest in school, friends or other things they enjoyed in the past

See more on American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.