By: Courtney Ernst, M.S., LPC-IT, Family Counselor, Penfield Children’s Center and Stephanie Shabangu, Penfield Children’s Center

According to the Milwaukee Health Department, domestic violence is a type of abuse within a familiar relationship that allows the abuser to control another person. It includes different types of abuse, including physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuse, among others.

Children exposed to domestic violence, whether directly or indirectly will be affected by the abuser’s actions and are very aware of what is taking place.

How does early childhood trauma from domestic violence affect children?

  • Children become more alert, have higher adrenaline levels and are more easily triggered. At first, a parent or teacher might think the child has ADHD or another behavioral issue because children affected by trauma often exhibit impulsivity and hyperactivity.
  • Children might have delayed speech or other areas of development because they are constantly trying to keep themselves or other family members safe and are therefore not able to develop typically.
  • The bond between parent/caregiver can become broken. This can happen between the parent who is the victim and the child because the victim is not able to keep himself/herself safe and therefore not able to provide a safe environment for the child. The bond is also broken between the parent who is perpetrating the violence and the child.
  • Children might start to blame themselves for the violence because they are unable to separate themselves from the situation and also cannot keep their family members safe.
  • Children might start to withdraw from normal activities or act timid and frightened even when the abuse is not going on. They might also act out at school by acting violently towards teachers or students.

Common myths associated with domestic violence:

  • Parents might think that children aren’t affected by the abuse because they are young and don’t understand what’s happening. They might think that since their child is in another room or asleep while the abuse occurs, that child is unaware. Unfortunately, children are very aware of what is happening and can become traumatized even if they do not actually witness the abuse taking place.
  • Adults sometimes believe that children will just forget about the violence if it is not talked about. However children who have experienced violence do remember what they’ve heard and seen. They might start acting out at home or in school and repeat violent words or actions.

It’s important to address trauma early in a child’s life because:

  • Patterns of trauma aren’t as established.
  • It’s easier to address and mitigate challenging behaviors that resulted from the trauma.
  • Establishing positive coping mechanisms early in a child’s development helps him deal with stress in a healthy way throughout the rest of his life.

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, the most important thing is to find safety. Talk to a trusted friend, social worker or teacher or reach out to your local domestic violence shelter or organization. Once your basic safety needs are met, you and your child can begin to heal from the emotional scars of domestic violence. When the family is ready, seek the services of a trained trauma-informed counselor who can work with your child. Also, make sure to reassure the child that he/she is not alone and allow that child to share his/her story.

Do you know a family who has struggled with domestic violence? How have you lent your support?


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