Silent Observers: How Children Internalize Witnessing Domestic Violence in Their Homes

October marks Domestic Violence Awareness Month, a time meant to shed light on a pervasive problem plaguing men and women across the world. While both sexes are at risk for experiencing this particular violence, women make up roughly 85 percent of victims.

Domestic violence has long been a topic of concern for researchers and for good reason. In the United States, one in four women experience domestic violence, and one-third of female homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner, resulting in three female deaths as a result of domestic violence every day. But often, female partners are not the only victims of abuse. Children are also victimized, either through direct abuse or through witnessing the abuse of their mothers. Recently, researchers in the UK sought to better understand the emotional impact of domestic violence on children and the implications that has on how clinicians can better help children to manage their emotions.

In “Understanding the emotional impact of domestic violence on young children,” Victoria Thornton observed eight children (between ages five and nine) and their mothers, all of whom had been victims of domestic violence. Through structured play and art, Thornton found that children from homes with domestic violence showed a strong desire to connect with adults along with emotional distress and negative expectations of family relationships. All of these children were also incredibly aware of the abuse going on in their homes.

Perhaps what is even more interesting is the study’s finding that these children tended to be more self-reliant and independent; often they would take responsibility for the abuse of their mothers, and, through story-telling activities, Thornton found that the children aspired to make themselves as easy to love as possible. The children were also sometimes unable to determine which parent to side with, developing negative views of both their fathers, for being the abuser, and their mothers, for neglecting them as a result of the abuse.

Finally, Thornton observed that the mothers of the children tended to underestimate the extent to which their children were emotionally affected by the abuse, often overlooking their children’s displays of emotional disturbance. These results allowed Thornton to create a model of the impacts of domestic violence on young children that illustrates the cascading negative emotional effects of living in an abusive home.

The findings of these observations complement the existing literature on the topic. Previously, a study by Abrahams (1994) found that out of 246 children living in homes with domestic violence, 73 percent of children directly witnessed the abuse and 92 percent were either in the same room or the next room when the assault occurred. Further studies found that children living in homes with domestic violence were four times more likely to develop psychopathologies and that children in these homes tended to be hyper-vigilant (Epstein & Keep, 1995) because they understood the threat of domestic violence not as a discrete event but as an ongoing atmosphere of fear. Many of these studies, as well as others, report the same mental disturbances observed by Thornton.

The question then is: what can we do for children who have been exposed to domestic violence? Thornton attempts to provide some answers to this question based on what she observed and the theoretical model she developed. Thornton concludes that, for young children, the responsibility of identifying the emotional and behavioral signs of living in a home with domestic violence falls primarily on educators. Thus, educators should be trained in how to identify signs in both play and artwork. Adults within schools can further support these children by helping them to regulate their emotions, teaching them mindfulness practices, and, in cases of severe trauma, knowing when to refer them to a clinician.

Thornton’s findings and conclusions should be considered in conjunction with the numerous other studies analyzing the effects on young children of living in an environment with domestic violence. Without more empirical research specifically on the topic of using play and art to understand the emotions of children in these homes, we cannot know for sure what signs are hallmarks of a necessity for intervention.

Thornton’s use of a small, non-representative sample to provide anecdotal evidence shows, at best, that this is a line of inquiry that warrants further investigation. We know that witnessing domestic violence can have a profound impact on children; what we need to know more about is how to identify the emotional disturbances and what can be done to help children cope with those emotions. These observations provide an initial step in reaching that goal.

Article Source: Victoria Thorton, “Understanding the emotional impact of domestic violence on young children,” Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 31 No. 1, The British Psychological Society, 2014

Feature Photo: cc/(Piers Nye)'
Mikia Manley
Mikia Manley is a staff writer for the Chicago Policy Review. She is interested in education policy.

3 Responses to “Silent Observers: How Children Internalize Witnessing Domestic Violence in Their Homes

    Mary D
    ago3 years

    very well written, Will share this with my staff who work with young children. Keep the articles coming I will use them at staff meetings as part of training sessions. Great job Mary D

  • Thank you for understanding the child and and listening to them being – Silent Observers: How Children Internalize Witnessing Domestic Violence i was one of them .I found all the teachers and doctor,police any one came to or house didn’t care and all knew what was going on .thank you for telling me about what i when true yours karen

    ago2 years

    Me and my two brothers were Silent observers in a domestically violent home.. Both my brothers are now grown domestic abusers in their homes.I being the only daughter have been diagnosed with codependent/ love addiction.. Though not violent myself, I have married abusers.. It’s a never ending cycle with out proper understanding and treatment. God Bless this study..