Until a few years ago, a term describing children witnessing domestic abuse/violence did not exist. As a result, research or understanding of its traumatic effects is grossly underreported. Every 9 seconds a woman is abused by an intimate partner and 70% of women worldwide will experience domestic abuse. As a result, 1/3 of American children have witnessed violence between their parents.

We see that abusers overwhelming come from abusive background, and thus only replicate patterns they have learned during their childhoods.

Melanie-Angela Neuilly Professor of Criminology

The research we do have is startling. Childhood Domestic Violence or CDV leads to deficiencies in cognitive skills, lower life expectancy, and a higher risk of developing violent behaviors. Children impacted by CDV need our help.

(click to enlarge graphic)


CDV Domestic Abuse Twitter iconClick to Tweet

Share this image on your site

Defining domestic violence

Domestic violence is difficult to define. It can take various forms and is often tied to intent to cause harm. Most commonly, it is described as a pattern of abusive behavior used to gain power or authority over a partner in an intimate relationship. The goal of an abuser is to control their partner:

Intimidate | Manipulate | Humiliate

Isolate | Frighten | Coerce

Blame | Hurt | Injure

When people think of domestic violence, they may think of a man physically assaulting their female intimate partner. But the scars run much deeper than a victim’s skin. Abuse can come in the following forms:

Physical abuse consists of hitting, throwing, grabbing, etc. It can also include pinching, poking, and any unwanted touching. 

Sexual abuse is any unwanted sexual behavior from one person to another.

Emotional abuse describes the terrorization of one’s feelings. This includes withholding love, making someone feel sad or isolated, etc.

Psychological abuse describes any actions that inspire to initiate self-degradation or a lack of self-esteem in a partner.

Economic abuse includes strictly controlling finances, forcing a partner to be financially dependent, and dictating all spending.

Even with these definitions of abuse, pinpointing what is domestic abuse, and what are bumps in the road is complicated.

Living with a monster

A violent relationship often contains love, romance, and happiness. Likewise, a relationship can turn abusive at any point and often leaves the victim confused and conflicted on whether to stay or leave. Even when the victim decides to get out of the relationship, the threat of violence or hardship is not always over. Susan Sorenson, a professor of social policy, says:

We tell women repeatedly to leave the abuser, leave the abuser, leave the abuser, but when she does she increases her risk of homicide.

The effects and after-effects of domestic violence are crippling and the fear of asking for help only compounds. In 57% of mass shootings, the perpetrator targeted either a family member or an intimate partner first and 8 million days of paid work lost by women due to abuse 3rd leading cause of homelessness for families. However,  only 25% of physical assaults are reported to police and only 34% of victims get medical help

Many survivors of domestic violence report bouts of abuse interwoven into a loving, trusting, fun filled relationship. Victims can convince themselves that their significant other is not a violent person, simply kind and gentle with hints of aggression, often thinking:

He doesn’t really mean it when he hurts me.

Signs of domestic abuse

Abuse is so common that it often goes unchecked, or seen as a normal aspect of a relationship. 3,802,800 women have been abused by an intimate partner and 20,000 calls are made daily to domestic violence hotlines. But you can help lower these startling figures by looking for warning signs. It is very unlikely that you will receive direct confirmation, but letting them know you sense something’s not right could open communication.

Every relationship with domestic violence is complex and different, but below are some common warning signs.

Hiding bruises/marks | Disappears from work/social life

Gives up hobbies and friends | Always checking in and asking for permission

Making excuses for partners erratic behavior | Dramatic shift in disciplining children

If you notice any of the above, inform them you are willing to help. Just having someone they trust can go a long way.

Exposure to children, CDV

CDV (childhood domestic violence) is any domestic abuse/violence witnessed by someone under the age of 18. Paralleling domestic violence statistics, the abuse witnessed is most commonly from a father figure towards the child’s mother. Calling CDV widespread is an understatement:

5 million children witness domestic violence every year in the USA

275 million CDV victims every year internationally

40 million Americans over the age of 18 witnessed domestic violence as children

They call children of domestic abuse victims invisible victims because they are around the abuse, but often do not encounter it directly. But just because a child doesn’t feel the violence first-hand, doesn’t mean it doesn’t leave a profound impact. One child witness recounted,

I wouldn’t say anything, I would just sit there…like I was just sitting there, listening to a TV show or something.

Besides seeing, children are affected by hearing, observing, and feeling domestic violence. The lifelong physical problems associated with CDV are distressing:


These invisible victims have very visible burdens. That added weight and anxiety can produce dangerous beliefs and views about relationships and morals.

Violent outcomes from CDV

When violence is constant, it becomes the norm. A child witness may associate violence with intimate relationships or view those abused as weak.

Unhealthy relationships are normal | Use violence as a means to get something | Viewing women as the inferior sex

Believing that fighting means you’re strong | Mom is at fault for making dad angry/not protecting children

With these views encroaching on developing minds, violence is often repeated:

  • 3x more likely to repeat the domestic violence they witnessed
  • 74% more likely to commit a violent crime
  • 75% of boys who witness their mothers being beaten were later identified as having demonstrable behavior problems
  • Up to 40% of chronically violent teenagers were exposed to extreme domestic violence
  • 63% of all boys, age 11-20, who commit murder, kill the man who abused their mother


These children are programmed at a young age to treat violence as just another aspect of life. Dangerous behavior is not only a threat to society, but to the very children where it manifests. CDV victims are at a high-risk of self-harm as 6x more likely to commit suicide. CDV survivor Tannetta Elliott, whose mother was murdered by an intimate partner, spoke about living with domestic violence in her home:

Being a child of domestic violence is like a death in itself. It’s like your life is being taken. Sometimes I used to say, ‘Maybe I should have taken that bullet.’

With the prevalence of domestic violence and its profound effects on children, the situation looks grim. But it is not irreversible.

How to help children

Unlike domestic abuse victims, warning signs for CDV are often easily noticeable. They change as the child ages and uses different methods to cope with the turmoil at home:

Preschool – Regressive behaviors (ex. thumb-sucking), anxiety with strangers

School Age – Self-blame, violent outbursts, regressive behaviors

Adolescents – Truancy, drug abuse, sexual activity

The child experiencing domestic violence is trying to understand how normal relationships work. That’s why priority number one is to prevent normalization of domestic violence. Show them how a healthy relationship works. Start by being their friend, someone they can trust. The courts and law enforcement are also getting involved as 23 states and Puerto Rico have adopted laws addressing violence committed in front of children.

Listen | Never make promises you cannot keep

Introduce them to safe hobbies/activities | Build on child’s cultural background

Find anchor (stable) family members to spend time with the child

Reinforce examples of positive relationships, and use these phrases often:

Violence is not okay | It’s not your fault | It is not your job to prevent or change domestic violence

Get help

In an emergency dial 911.

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-787-3224

CDV survivors are finally starting to get the help they need. As awareness grows, and survivors continue to share their experiences, the crippling effects of CDV are starting to slow. Together we can help the next generation put domestic violence in the rearview mirror and develop healthy, loving relationships.