Effects of Domestic Violence on the Family

The purpose of this session(s) is to understand the effects of domestic violence on children and to learn ways to talk to and listen to them about their experience of domestic violence.  In addition we will learn to understand how domestic violence affects you as a parent.  We will review suggestions for parenting children who have witnessed domestic violence.  Lastly, we will look at support and resources available to you and your family.


How do children feel when violence is in their home?

  • Scared
  • Powerless
  • Confused
  • Helpless
  • Angry
  • Self-blaming
  • Anxious
  • Guilty about loving the abusive parent
  • Guilty about not protecting abused parent
  • Worried about the future
  • Worried about possible loss of a parent
  • Insecure
  • Hopeless
  • Split down the middle
  • Numb


What do children learn when violence is in their home?

  • Other people are responsible for my behavior
  • I am responsible for other peoples’ behavior
  • Men have the right to control women
  • Violence is an appropriate way to solve problems
  • My mother is to blame for my father’s violence
  • The violence is my mother’s fault
  • Women have no rights
  • My mother can’t protect me
  • Nothing is safe
  • Domestic violence is normal
  • Intimidation is the way to get what you want
  • Other people have the right to abuse me
  • My father’s violence is my fault
  • It’s OK to abuse my mother


How do children act when violence is in their home?

  • Regress: bedwetting, whining, temper tantrums
  • Earlier childhood fears return
  • Aggressive to other kids, brothers and sisters, pets
  • Treat Mom like Dad treats her
  • Experience problems concentrating
  • Easily distracted
  • Fight at school
  • Get bad grades
  • Lie, steal
  • Withdraw and unusual shyness
  • Forgetful
  • Have trouble sleeping
  • Very anxious
  • Physical illness: stomach aches, nausea, headaches
  • Easily startled
  • Unable to play
  • Highly sensitive to noise
  • Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) symptoms


How can parents help their children who witnessed domestic violence?          

Many parents say that the experience of domestic violence didn’t affect their children. They may see that their children are acting “normal,” doing well in school, and playing with their friends.

It is important to understand that children learn to define themselves and to understand the world around them from what they observe at home. When very young children start to understand the idea of “ME” they watch their Mom and their Dad, or whomever is taking care of them. A child begins to develop her concept of “ME” from how each of her parents interacts with her, and how her parents interact with each other. She defines herself as “Like Mom” and “Like Dad,” and “Like Mom and Dad.”


Many other people and experiences contribute to a child’s idea of “ME,” including brothers and sisters, friends, teachers, other family members, etc., but a child’s sense of self begins to develop at home. This is the child’s self that begins to interact with the outside world.

With that being said, a child’s emotional recovery from exposure to domestic violence depends more on the quality of their relationship to the non-offending parent than any other factor.  The presence of a healthy parent or adult in the life of a child can greatly influence a child’s ability to heal from trauma.


A Word about Brain Development:

In order to continue growth & development children adapt to chronic stress and threat, but it affects brain development.  Children’s adaptation to this fear can alter the development of the child’s brain, resulting in changes in physiological, emotional, behavioral, cognitive and social functioning.


Children usually respond to chronic stress with a combination of the following 2 responses:

Hyperarousal Response: Most often the response used by children and adolescents.  It is a flight or fight response to stress & threat.  It may look like frustration, impulsivity, irritability, aggression, and violent behavior.


Dissociation Response: Most often the response used by infants and young children to cope with violence.  It includes distraction, avoidance, numbing, daydreaming, and fantasy.  It may seem that a child is just carrying on as normal and not reacting at all to family violence.


What can a parent do?

  • Talk about it with them when they are ready
  • Listen to them
  • Talk about their feelings
  • Show understanding
  • Let them know it’s not their fault
  • Let them talk, if they want to
  • Let them know you love them
  • Let them know you will try to keep them safe/act in a way that is safe
  • Let them know the violence is not okay
  • Acknowledge it’s hard/scary for them
  • Accept that they may not be willing or able to talk about it right away
  • Always act in a way that is non-threatening and non-violent with your kids
  • Take them to counseling if they need it
  • Set limits respectfully when your child is acting violent (to be discussed further in a later session.)
  • Don’t expect your child to respond immediately.


How Denial Affects Kids-

  • Child learns that the violence is normal
  • Child is afraid to talk about the violence
  • Child is confused, doesn’t understand
  • Blames her/himself
  • Learns to deny and not to talk about their own feelings
  • Makes them feel like they are crazy
  • Makes them feel lonely, isolated from their friends
  • Learns that it’s not OK to ask about the violence or discuss it
  • Gives children unrealistic beliefs about the causes of the violence

*It’s a lot scarier for kids when no one ever talks to them about the violence.


What are some obstacles you face in trying to talk to your kids about violence?

Could it be some of the things on this list?

  • I feel uncomfortable.
  • I’m scared to bring it up.
  • I don’t know what to say.
  • I don’t have time.
  • I’m embarrassed.
  • I’m afraid I’ll make things worse.
  • I don’t think it’s such a big deal.
  • It’s over now, why talk about it.
  • I don’t want them to hate their Dad/Mom.
  • They won’t understand.
  • They didn’t know it happened.
  • They are too young to hear about it.
  • They’ll just be more scared.
  • They’ll tell other people.


How to overcome barriers:

  • Be patient. Don’t push it. Try another time. They usually hear you anyway.
  • Acknowledge that it may be uncomfortable for you to talk about the violence. Try to get more comfortable by talking to someone you trust.
  • Acknowledge that it may be scary for you to remember the violence. It’s scary for your kids, too. Once you start talking, it may feel less scary.
  • Acknowledge that saying that you don’t have time is probably because it’s difficult, or you don’t feel capable of talking to your child about it.


Benefits of talking to kids about the violence:

  • Children feel safer.
  • They learn that violence isn’t their fault.
  • They learn that violence isn’t an OK way to solve problems,
  • It helps them to feel cared for, and understood.
  • Children learn that it’s OK to talk about feelings.


Emotional Needs of Children Who Have Witnessed Domestic Violence

Child’s Emotion: Fear

  • Fear of those they love in their own home, where they should feel most safe

Child needs to:

  • Be able to talk to someone they trust about their feelings
  • Learn ways to keep themselves safe and to know they have a plan for what to do when there is violence
  • Have a feeling of control in the situation (“I will go over to my neighbors when it happens”)


Child’s Emotion: Anger

  • Anger at the abuser, or at the survivor for not leaving the situation

Child needs to:

  • Know that it is normal and okay to feel angry about this
  • Be able to talk about the feelings with someone they trust
  • Express their anger in non-destructive ways


Child’s Emotion: Mixture of anger and love

  • Feeling torn between feelings of anger and love toward the abuser. Feeling guilty for both feelings

Child needs to:

  • Learn that it’s okay to feel both anger and love toward someone
  • Know it is okay to love their parent even when they hate the behavior they see
  • Know they are not bad if they love the abuser


Child’s Emotion: Confusion about being able to love both parents

  • Feeling they need to take sides (e.g. “if I love Mom, I can’t love Dad” and vice versa)

Child needs to:

  • To know that it is okay to love both parents at the same time


Child’s Emotion: Loss

  • Loss of a healthy, safe family
  • Loss of one parent if they leave (or the constant threat of this)
  • Loss of comfort in the home

Child needs to:

  • Talk about feelings with someone they trust
  • Develop a support system of extended family or friends outside the home


Child’s Emotion: Guilt/Responsibility

  • Guilt for causing the violence, or not stopping it somehow
  • Responsible for preventing the violence, and taking care of Mom and the family

Child needs to:

  • Understand that the violence is not their fault, and that it is an adult problem for the adults to work out.


Child’s Emotion: Feeling life is unpredictable (never knowing when a crisis will erupt)

  • Feeling vulnerable on a daily basis, with no power or control about what will happen

Child needs to:

  • Find areas in their lives where they can have control and make plans and decisions
  • Create a safety plan with someone they trust
  • Create some structure and stability wherever possible (creating daily routines that provide a sense of control)


Talking to Children about Domestic Violence

What Children Need to Hear About Domestic Violence from the Survivor

  • It’s not okay.
  • It’s not your fault.
  • It must be scary for you.
  • I will listen to you.
  • You can tell me how you feel; it is important
  • I’m sorry you had to see/hear it.
  • You do not deserve to have this in your family.
  • I will keep you safe.
  • There is nothing you could have done to prevent/change it.
  • We can talk about what to do to keep you safe if it happens again. (For example, staying in your room, going to neighbors, etc., which will be discussed in detail in safety session).
  • I care about you. You are important.

How has your child responded when you try to talk to her or him about violence?


Common Responses:

  • Ignore you
  • Change the subject; for example, “I’m hungry”
  • Blame you; for example, “If you were nicer to him, he wouldn’t hit you,” or “You should have done what he said”
  • Put her hands over her ears
  • Act out aggressively towards belongings
  • Run to her room and slam the door
  • Say “Don’t worry, Mom,” and try to cheer you up
  • Hit you.
  • Listen quietly, without saying anything
  • Say, “It’s no big deal”

What kinds of feelings do you think a child feels during this?


Listening is key!

How to Listen:

  • Don’t interrupt.
  • Look at the person who is talking.
  • Give them your full attention, if possible.
  • Answer in a way that lets them know you are listening.
  • Don’t express an opinion or say that the other person is right or wrong.
  • Let them know you understand their point of view.
  • Being a good listener takes effort and practice. Try to hear what the person is saying, even if you don’t agree.


How to Not Listen:

  • Don’t look at the person speaking
  • Interrupt him
  • Correct him
  • Give advice
  • Tell her she is wrong
  • Tell her not to feel what she is feeling
  • Change the subject
  • Ask a lot of questions


Tips for Listening For and Accepting Feelings

Learning to listen can be difficult. Here are some tips:

  • Listen for the feeling you hear.
  • Let them know you hear them. Say, “It seems like you feel ________.”
  • Don’t say anything else. Allow some time for the child to respond.
  • Don’t tell your child what to do, how to feel better, or why he feels the way he does.


After your child has had time to respond, you can let her know you understand by saying things like

  • That sounds frustrating, hard, etc.
  • Sometimes I feel that way, too.
  • I understand.
  • I’m here for you if you want to talk about it now, or later.


Safety Planning With Your Children

When safety planning with kids, it is important to let them know that they are NOT responsible for the violence, and they can NOT stop it.



1.  Talk to your child about violence in your family

2.  Identify a person or people who could help

  • Ask her who she thinks could help her, and whether she would feel comfortable asking that person.

3.  Children should know that:

  • The safety plan may not always work.
  • It’s not their fault if it fails.

4.  Help your child to identify warning signs for abusive behavior

5.  Identify ways the child can stay safe


  • Go to their room
  • Leave the house and go somewhere safe: a neighbor’s house, a relative’s house, or outside
  • Stay out of the way
  • Dial 911 if there is a phone where their Dad can’t hear them
  • Don’t ever try to physically stop the violence




Here are a few questions to consider when examining your own parenting preferences and styles.


  • What was it like when you were a kid?
  • What have you learned from your parents on parenting?
  • How is parenting/discipline seen in your culture?
  • How does your culture view the role of the parent?
  • How does your culture view the role of the child?
  • What are you currently doing now for discipline methods?  Is it working?
  • How do you define your role as a parent?
  • Do religious beliefs or faith play a role in how you discipline your child?
  • Do you have support from your faith-based network?


Think of ways Domestic Violence affects your role as a Parent, both during and after the relationship with the batterer.


  • Overly permissive
  • Overprotective of children at times when they don’t need her protection
  • Unable to pay enough attention to the children because she is overwhelmed by the violence
  • Afraid of what will happen when children misbehave in front of Dad
  • Rescues children from Dad’s discipline/abuse
  • Has difficulty maintaining structure or routines because of the violence
  • Unable to contain anger at the batterer, and turns it on the kids
  • Stress and fatigue leaves little energy for the children
  • Abusing drugs/alcohol as a way to cope with the violence
  • Gives children whatever they want because she feels guilty
  • Afraid to discipline because the batterer has threatened to report her to CPS or sue her for custody of the children


How does Domestic Violence affect the way children act towards their Mom?


  • View their Mom the way the abuser labels her (stupid, crazy, etc.)
  • View their Mom as weak because she “takes” Dad’s abuse
  • Don’t respect Mom
  • Don’t listen to her
  • Put her down
  • Use power and control tactics against Mom
  • Use physical violence against Mom
  • Demand that she do what they want
  • Treat her exactly the way the batterer does
  • Try to take care of her all the time


Domestic Violence can affect a Mom in a lot of different ways. Lots of Moms who have been battered experience the following:

  • Self-blame for the violence and its impact on their children
  • Loss of respect from the children and loss of leadership with them
  • Feelings towards the batterer that come out at the kids
  • High levels of anxiety and stress in daily life
  • Fear of leaving the batterer because of the impact on the children


Many battered women who are Moms not only blame themselves for the violence, but also for the problems their children might be experiencing as a result. When a parent feels badly about their child’s painful or difficult experiences, a normal reaction is to be easy on the children to make up for the hardship. In some situations, it is very appropriate to be easy on them; for example, when a child falls down and gets a cut and a bad bruise on her knee, most parents would not expect her to do her chores that afternoon. When a parent always feels badly or guilty about their child’s experiences, permissive behavior becomes a pattern.


Establishing Leadership with Your Children

Usually when we blame ourselves and act overly permissive with our kids, our intentions are good. We want to compensate for the fact that our kids have been through so much. But when we don’t set any limits with our kids, or we let them act disrespectfully, we are not helping them.

When we fail to set limits, we may get angry and resentful at our kids for the way they act. We find ourselves getting “fed-up” and we may become too punitive.


When we are inconsistent in limit-setting, kids become confused. They learn that they don’t have to respect limits or be responsible for their behavior. They may have learned from Dad that being abusive to family members is acceptable, and helps you get your way.

Many parents use physical punishment (spankings, whippings, slaps, etc.) to try to set limits with their children. For children who have witnessed domestic violence, physical punishment can be damaging.


Ways to promote stability and security in your child:

  1. Encourage your children: Notice your children’s positive qualities and let them know that you appreciate these.
  2. Set clear limits: Set limits that are reasonable and appropriate to your children’s ages, to help them feel valued and secure.
  3. Listen carefully: Pay attention to what your children say, and let them know you hear what they are saying.
  4. Be affectionate: Hug, kiss, pat, and smile at your children. Tell them you care for them.
  5. Allow them to solve problems: Encourage your children to solve problems and make some decisions for themselves.
  6. Communicate respectfully: Share your feelings, expectations and needs with your children in a way that is respectful.
  7. Promote independence: Allow your children to play independently in a safe environment.
  8. Spend time with your kids: Reading together, talking and listening, or playing together helps children feel cared for.
  9. Arrange for new activities in which your child can succeed: Set up new activities for your children that they enjoy, like playing sports on a team, taking music lessons, etc., so that your children learn new skills and gain confidence in themselves.
  10. Be a positive, non-violent role model for your children: Maintaining safe, reliable interaction with your children and their other parent can help them develop self-esteem.
  11. Let your children know they are capable: Allow your children to have responsibilities and let them know you have confidence in them.
  12. Let your children know they are worthy of love just for who they are, not related to their behavior: Tell them you like them, enjoy them, appreciate them, etc., without relating it to their behavior.



Reasons to avoid corporal punishment, especially with children from domestic violence households:

  • Hitting teaches hitting
  • Ineffective in responding to needs of child
  • Distracts child from learning to resolve conflict
  • Ruling with fear instead of love & respect
  • Can escalate to abuse
  • Might makes right?
  • Parent is modeling aggressive behavior in problem solving


Strengthening Your Support System

Isolation is a tactic that many batterers use to control their partners. Many women who have been battered find themselves cut off from family and friends, from coworkers and neighbors. Think of ways you’ve been isolated.

We can do a better job of helping our kids when we feel strong and supported ourselves.

Support comes in many forms: people we can talk to; family members and friends who can help with our kids; counseling or women’s groups where we can share experiences of being battered, and share our struggles of co-parenting with a man who has abused us; connecting with people in our faith-based network; drug/alcohol programs where we can get help for chemical dependency.                                                                                                                                       What are your obstacles to expanding your support network?


What resources are available for parent survivors of domestic violence?

1.  Lending library at Tahoe SAFE Alliance

2.  Talk to your therapist or your child’s therapist about parenting concerns related to family violence

3.  Parenting classes are available through the Family Resource Center of Truckee and the North Tahoe Family Resource Center.

4.  Internet resources: tons of research on family violence, child development, and parenting information

5.  Support Groups at Tahoe SAFE Alliance or online support groups

6.  Peer counseling at Tahoe SAFE Alliance

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