The Impact of Domestic Violence on Mental Health

Each year, an estimated six-million youth experience child abuse (Child Help, 2014), and an estimated ten million children witness domestic violence (Children’s Bureau, 2003).  Of reported cases of child abuse, 64% of mothers and 36.8% of the fathers are found to be the main perpetrators (Children’s Bureau, 2006).  More than four children die every day from child abuse (Child Help, 2014), 70% of those deaths are of youth under the age of three (Children’s Bureau, 2014).  In 2012, of the reported 1,593 youth who died 69.9% suffered from neglect, 44.3% had been abused, and 80% of the deaths were caused by parents acting alone, together, or with the help of a friend (Children’s Bureau, 2014).  Of the same 1,593 children who died in 2012, the mother was solely responsible for 27.1% of the deaths, mother and father acted together in 21.2% of the fatalities, and fathers killed the children alone in 17.1% of the cases (Children’s Bureau, 2014).  In 2012, thirty one states reported that 20.1% of child fatalities occurred in homes in which domestic violence was known to be present, 8.5% of child deaths occurred in homes that had been involved with Child Protective Services (CPS), and 2.2% of the youth had been in foster care and reunited with their families (Children’s Bureau, 2014).  In a study investigating abuse in 6,000 American families’ researchers found that 50% of men who abused their wives also abused their children (Children’s Bureau, 2003). Studies show that 59% of mothers’ of abused children are battered by their male partners (Carter, 2012).  In 41% of cases in which children are hospitalized or killed by their fathers, the mothers’ are victims of domestic violence (Carter, 2012). 

            Child abuse was not nationally recognized as a crime in until 1962, when Congress declared a need for child protective services (Myers, 2010).  Domestic violence, specifically the abuse of a women by her husband, was made a criminal action by the U.S. Congress when it passed the Violence Against Women act of 1994 (P.L. 109-162) (H.R. 3402, 2006).  Over the last 30 years professionals in the child welfare system and mental health professions have recognized an overlap between domestic violence and child abuse (Children’s Bureau, 2003).  Studies show that youth who experience domestic abuse and/or witness domestic violence are at high risk for developing severe behavioral and/or psychological dysfunctions which permeate throughout their adult lives (Child Help, 2014; Children’s Bureau, 2003; Child Welfare Information Gateway [CWIG], 2009).  

            Child abuse and domestic violence are theorized to have been co-occurring for the duration of human existence (Stavrianos, Stavrianou, & Kafas, 2007). The first documented case of child abuse that resulted in the child’s death took place around 50AD (Castro, 2013).  Childhood physical and sexual abuse was popular and socially sanctioned among the Greek’s and Roman’s (Burton & Meyers, 1992), and the European elites in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (Heroard, 1868; Mintz, 2013).  It was not until the nineteenth century that cases of father-to-daughter incest were brought before the United States Courts as a criminal matter after numerous girls ages 5-11 were found to have contracted gonorrhea from their fathers (Sacco, 2009).  In the nineteenth century childhood incest cases were investigated in order to determine the mental stability of the perpetrator (Hamilton, Godkin & Babcock, 1894) and the psychological effects of the abuse on the youth were not considered (Mintz, 2013).  Until the late twentieth century the negative psychological effects caused by domestic violence on youth were either ignored or believed to not exist (Kenny, et al., 2003).  The purpose of this paper is to examine the effect’s domestic violence has on the mental health of a child who witnesses or experiences domestic abuse. This perlustration will be done using a lifespan approach by demonstrating the ways in which witnessing or experiencing domestic violence at certain stages of development place a child at a greater risk for developing behavioral and mental health complications.

 A Lifespan View of the Effects of Domestic Violence on Mental Health

            In the following sections domestic abuse and child abuse encapsulates all forms of abuse including shouting, name calling, put downs, threats of harm, physical violence, and sexual abuse.

Prenatal Development

            Studies suggest that 21% of women are abused during their pregnancies (Dourin, 2010). When women are abused during pregnancy the abuser typically attacks the women’s genitals and stomach which has been known to cause broken bones and other serious injuries to the unborn child (Dourin, 2010).  When a pregnant woman is a victim of domestic abuse the amount of stress she is under can have detrimental effects on her unborn child.  Research shows that children exposed to high amounts of stress hormones during pregnancy have a high risk of developing a severe mental illnesses during childhood (Schetter & Tanner, 2012). Stress hormones compromise the development of the fetal nervous system which leads to gross motor difficulties and cognitive disabilities during the first five years of a child’s life (Schetter & Tanner, 2012). Extensive research has linked mental health disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, depression, attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder, anxiety disorders, depression, and mood disorders in individuals who were exposed to high amounts of cortisol, during their prenatal development, caused by their mothers being under high amounts of stress (Weir, 2012).

            Domestic abuse of pregnant women causes premature birth (Dourin, 2010).  High levels of stress during pregnancy also result in infants having low birth weights (Dominguez, Glynn, Schetter & Hobel, 2008).  Adults who were born prematurely are 2.9 times more likely to have depression, 7.4 times more likely to have bipolar disorder, and 2.5 times more likely to have or develop schizophrenia than adults we were born after 37 weeks (Nosarti, 2012).

            Birth through Three

            Children who witness domestic violence between the ages of zero and three develop a multitude of problem behaviors and mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression (Youcha, 2007).  Children who witness domestic violence at this life stage tend to be moody, irritable, act immaturely, experience developmental regression, are overly clingy of their caregivers, are withdrawn from their caregivers, display aggressive behaviors, experience sleep disturbances, do not socialize with other children, and some develop post-traumatic stress disorder (Youcha, 2007).  Children who witness and experience domestic violence also have the aforementioned behavioral and mental health issues with the addition of slower neurological function which causes poor school performance (Edleson, 2011; Youcha, 2007). 

            Studies found that many children who witness and experience domestic violence at a young age do not display many negative and telling symptoms until they enter into preschool (Holmes, 2013; Kubek, 2013). This delay in signs of negative reactions to domestic violence is called the sleeper effect (Kubek, 2013). The sleeper effect occurs when a child witnesses or experiences domestic violence between the ages of zero and three and the abuse stops before they reach the age of four (Holmes, 2013).  When these youth enter into preschool they are not any more aggressive than their classmates but over the course of five years their aggressive behaviors escalate despite a lack of current abuse or exposure to violence in their lives (Holmes, 2013).  

            Adults who experienced and/or witnessed domestic violence during the first three years of their life are found to be more violent than adults who did not (Edleson, 2011; Holmes, 2013; Youcha, 2007), and have higher levels of mental illness (Edleson, 2011). These adults also performed poorly in school during their youth due to cognitive dysfunctions (Edleson, 2011; Loughan, & Perna, 2012). 

Three through Twelve

            Children age’s three to twelve who witness domestic violence develop a host of behavioral, emotional and cognitive problems. Children who witness domestic violence exhibit aggressive behaviors, antisocial behaviors, are depressed, are anxious, hold high levels of anger, are hostile, display oppositional behavior, are disobedient, are introverted, have low self-esteem, and have poor relationships with their siblings, teachers, and peers (Children’s Bureau, 2009; Nauert, 2014). These youth also perform poorly in school (My Sahana, 2011; Nauert, 2014), have low scores on assessments of verbal, motor, and cognitive skills (Childrens Bureau, 2009), show a lack of conflict resolution skills, have limited problem solving skills, believe pro-violence behaviors are acceptable and believe in gender stereotypes (Childrens Bureau, 2009).  Other effects of witnessing domestic violence include bedwetting, poor hygiene, bullying behaviors, immature behaviors, lying, poor impulse control, and an inability to maintain friendships (My Sahana, 2011).

            Children who experience abuse during these ages display all of the aforementioned behaviors and mental health complications (Childrens Bureau, 2009; My Sahana, 2011; Nauert, 2014).  Studies show that the youth who experienced abuse as well as witnessed domestic abuse were more negatively affected than those who only witnessed trauma because their brains and thyroid did not develop correctly due to the stress caused by the abuse (ASCA, 2010; Szalavitz; 2012).  Due to the structural changes in the brain, children who experience domestic abuse suffer from depression, anxiety, post-traumatic-stress, and chemical dependency at higher levels than the general population (ASCA, 2010; Szalavitz; 2012).

            Adults who witnessed and/or experienced domestic violence when they were children are more likely die young (Children’s Bureau, 2009), become romantically involved with/or marry an abuser (LaViolett & Barnette, 2014); and roughly 30% of them abuse their spouse and children (Child Help, 2014; LaViolett & Barnette, 2014).

Thirteen through Eighteen

            Children who experience and or witness domestic violence for the first time during their teen years have less emotional and mental health problems than younger children; this is attributed to their being able to cognitively understand what they see and feel which allows them to develop healthier coping mechanisms (Children’s Bureau, 2009).  Teens who experience or witness domestic violence perform poorly in school, have high levels of anxiety, become involved in criminal behavior, participate in risky sexual behaviors, have low-self-esteem, blame themselves for the violence and abuse, are suicidal, and become involved in abusive relationships (Children’s Bureau, 2009; CORA, 2014; Whole Child, 2014).

            Studies have shown that the majority of teenagers who are delinquent, use drugs, skip school, or underachieve academically had witnessed or were exposed to domestic violence (Attachment and Trauma Specialist’s; 2013; Volpe, 1996).  Research investigating the long term mental health consequences for individuals who experience domestic violence for the first time during their teen years is lacking.  The few comprehensive studies into the effects of domestic violence on adolescent mental health state that teens are at a high of a risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, becoming an abuser during their adult lives, and suffering from a drug dependency (Moroz, 2005).


            When a child witnesses domestic violence or experiences abuse they will likely develop a mental health disorder during their childhood and/or adult life.  Studies show that domestic violence can have a disastrous effect on a child’s mental development before the child is even born.   Historically child abuse and domestic violence were considered topics which should be dealt with quietly at home, out of view of the public eye.   Domestic violence and child abuse have now been in the public sphere for fifty years.  Numerous studies show that domestic violence and child abuse affect the mental health and cognitive development of children and that these negative consequences last through their adult lives.  The very real consequences that mental illness, drug use, and criminal activity have on society make it impossible for anyone to continue ignoring the issue of domestic violence and child abuse.   If actions are taken to decrease domestic violence the number of individuals requiring mental health services, drug rehabilitation, and criminal punishment will decrease.  Reduction in those areas will lead to a relief in financial burdens placed on our social welfare and criminal justice systems.  The magnitude of the role domestic violence and child abuse play in the social ills of society is monstrous.  Now that society is aware of the consequences of domestic violence it must be combated.


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Published by lifefromtheashes5332

Hi, I’m Elizabeth. I am a wife, mother, gardener, adjunct professor, philosopher, former foster child, former homeless adult and Master in Social Work. My website covers all the things listed above!

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