Watching as one parent berates another or harms the other parent physically or sexually can be scarring for children and teenagers. Even if the children are not involved in the abuse itself, research is showing that the impact of witnessing it in any way can leave scars on the child that can last a lifetime. Specifically, research has focused on four areas of development that are profoundly affected by children and teens growing up in a home where domestic violence exists: physically, cognitively, emotionally and socially.
Witnessing domestic violence can permanently alter the brain chemistry of a child or teenager. This can have serious consequences for the physical development of the child. Without eating or sleeping properly and experiencing extreme stress and anxiety, children’s ability for healthy growth becomes difficult. Common signs of the impact on a child’s body from witnessing domestic violence includes:
– Low birth weight and/or premature birth (if abuse occurred while mother was pregnant)
– Problems with toilet training
– Bedwetting, even in children who have been toilet trained
– Increase in illnesses
– Problems with eating
– Increased fatigue usually from lack of sleep
– Change in weight from poor eating habits
– Injuries from being in the way during an attack
Children who see or hear either a male or female parent being abused are more likely to exhibit signs of:
– sleep disturbances
– poor school performance
– poor concentration
– problems with language development
– substance abuse
Healthy emotional development is just as crucial for children as healthy physical development. Research has shown that witnessing domestic violence as a child or teen, when the brain is not yet fully developed, can forever change the neural connections. Youngsters who witness domestic violence of any kind are more likely to experience:
– anxiety and stress
– decreased ability to empathize with others
– feeling isolated
– aggressive behavior
– fear of being alone
– low self-esteem
– feeling hopeless
Children learn how to relate to others by watching the relationships in their family. If their parents are in an abusive relationship, it is only natural that children will mimic the behaviors that they witness at home. Sometimes this is done because they believe this is the only way to relate to others. Other times it is done because they believe hurting others is the only way to protect themselves from being hurt by someone else. Socially, children and teens who witness domestic violence show signs such as:
– immature behavior
– increased behavior problems such as not following rules, talking back, lying or cheating
– aggressive behavior, such as fighting
– unable to keep and maintain friendships
– becoming a bully
– difficulty resolving conflict
– poor impulse control
Impact on the Future
Children and teens who live in a house where the parents are engaged in an abusive marriage are more likely to become victims themselves. Approximately 50-60% of domestic violence cases escalate to child abuse cases.
Additionally, children who witness at least one parent being abused are significantly more likely become find themselves in abusive relationships when they are older. The largest predictor of a child becoming a victim or a perpetrator as they get older is witnessing domestic violence as a child or teen.
Children are not immune to the problems in a marriage and this is even more so the case when the marriage involves emotional, verbal, physical or sexual violence. It is imperative that South Asian parents educate themselves on the signs and red flags of domestic violence. Then, they can not only take action early in order to stay safe but can also protect their child from the deleterious and long lasting impact of witnessing domestic violence.
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