Back to top

Effects

Despite the high occurrence of childhood exposure to IPV, it is important to note that children are inherently resilient and can move forward from stressful events in their lives. One way children heal is by having adults who care about them provide guidance, attention, and support in the aftermath of IPV. While the number of children exposed to IPV remains staggering, services are available to those in need as the issue of childhood exposure to IPV becomes more visible. 

Not all children exposed to domestic violence are affected equally or in the same ways. For many children, exposure to domestic violence may be traumatic, and their reactions are similar to children's reactions to other traumatic stressors.

Immediate Reactions and Long-term Effects

Children’s immediate reactions to domestic violence may include:

  • Generalized anxiety
  • Sleeplessness
  • Nightmares
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • High activity levels
  • Increased aggression
  • Increased anxiety about being separated from a parent
  • Intense worry about their safety or the safety of a parent

Long-term effects, especially from chronic exposure to domestic violence, may include:

  • Physical health problems
  • Behavior problems in adolescence (e.g., delinquency, alcohol or substance abuse)
  • Emotional difficulties in adulthood (e.g., depression, anxiety, PTSD)

Exposure to domestic violence has also been linked to poor school performance. Children who grow up with domestic violence may have impaired ability to concentrate; difficulty completing school work; and lower scores on measures of verbal, motor, and social skills.

In addition to these physical, behavioral, psychological, and cognitive effects, children who have been exposed to domestic violence often learn destructive lessons about the use of violence and power in relationships. Children may learn that it is acceptable to exert control or relieve stress by using violence, or that violence is in some way linked to expressions of intimacy and affection. These lessons can have a powerful negative effect on children in social situations and relationships throughout childhood and in later life.

As with other trauma types, children's responses to domestic violence vary with age and developmental stage. In addition, children's responses depend on the severity of the violence, their proximity to the violent events, and the responses of their caregivers.

Reactions by Age Group

The table below shows a brief list of possible reactions or symptoms by age group.

Birth to 5 Ages 6 to 11 Ages 12 to 18
  • Sleep and/or eating disruptions
  • Withdrawal/lack of responsiveness
  • Intense separation anxiety
  • Inconsolable crying
  • Developmental regression, loss of acquired skills
  • Intense anxiety, worries, and/or new fears
  • Increased aggression and/or impulsive behavior
  • Nightmares, sleep disruptions
  • Aggression and difficulty with peer relationships in school
  • Difficulty with concentration and task completion in school
  • Withdrawal and/or emotional numbing
  • School avoidance and/or truancy
  • Antisocial behavior
  • School failure
  • Impulsive and/or reckless behavior, e.g.,
    • School truancy
    • Substance abuse
    • Running away
    • Involvement in violent or abusive dating relationships
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Withdrawal

It is important to remember that these symptoms can also be associated with other stressors, traumas, or developmental disturbances, and that they should be considered in the context of the child and family's functioning.