Impact of Domestic Violence (DV) on Children

By Junko Mifune, JSS CounsellorJunko-Mifune
To follow up on my previous article, I would like to write about the impact of DV on children.
As noted in my previous article, in homes where DV occurs, the victim is a mother, the abuse she experiences impacts her physical and mental health, and she is often traumatized by her adverse experience. Children living with DV are also greatly affected by their exposure to violence in their homes, because their needs for safety, stability, and consistency that children require are threatened. If children see, hear or later learn about their mothers being abused by their partners, it is said that such experience endangers children’s sense of stability and security that is crucial for healthy child development. Children can be exposed to DV even when parents are not living together such as following a separation or during visitation.
The following are alarming facts about the effects of DV on children:

  • Each year in Canada, it is estimated that 85,000 – 362,000 children witness or experience family violence. The number is 427,000 – 875,000 in Japan. As many as 275 million children are exposed to violence in the home, globally.
  • Although adults may think, “the kids don’t know,” research shows that children see or hear many DV assaults. Almost 60% of the women with children who were assaulted by their spouses said their children heard or saw the violent episode.
  • Children are more likely to witness DV when the spousal victim is female.
  • DV is more common in homes with young children than homes with older children.
  • Children who witness violence in the home have twice the rate of psychiatric disorders as   children from non-violent homes.
  • Research shows that children who witness violence are more likely to grow up to become victims or abusers. The chances of being abused are higher among women whose husbands were abused as children or who saw their mothers being abused. These children are more likely to have their own parenting issues with their own children in the future.
  • Children who witness DV are at immediate risk of being physically injured. Children who grow up in violent homes are more likely to be victims of physical abuse.

A finding from a study also states that the effects of children’s exposures to DV are very similar to the adverse effects experienced by those children who have been abused. According to the RCMP, a child who witnesses spousal violence is experiencing a form of child abuse because witnessing family violence is as harmful as experiencing it directly. Therefore, children’s exposure to DV is now recognized as another type of child abuse and neglect. In 2004 the Child Protection Act in Japan also defined it in the same way.
While not all children who witness DV suffer direct physical abuse, they frequently develop long-term behavioural and psychological problems.  Exposure to DV not only affects children and adolescents’ psychological, social, emotional and behavioural wellbeing but their brain development and ability to learn as well.
The following table shows typical long-term effects on children witnessing their mothers being abused:

Infants Preschool 5–12 years 12–18 years
Disruption in eating and sleeping routines Poor concentration Low self-esteem Being abused or becoming abusive
Fearful of loud noises Fear Post-traumatic stress disorder Suicidal behaviour
Delays in development Separation anxiety Self-harm Disrespect for females
Excessive crying Frequent illness Bullying Bullying
Physical neglect Hitting, biting Depression Poor peer relationships
Clinging Perfectionism Running away
Anger and aggression Problems in school Feeling over-responsible
Cruelty to animals Inappropriate sexual behaviour Pleasing behaviour
Regressive behaviour Alcohol/drug use Anxiety and tension
Destruction of property

Adapted from A handbook for health and social service providers and educators on children exposed to woman abuse/family violence, Ottawa: Health Canada, 1999.
What should be done to better protect children from adverse effects of domestic violence and what should be done to support children who are exposed to such violence? Children need a safe and secure home environment, and they should feel that their mothers are also protected.  Children also need a sense of routine and normalcy of going to school and participating in different activities that are essential for their development and well-being.  If violence is happening at home, children should be moved to a safe and supportive environment.  This could be a family shelter, if the family does not have extended families or supportive networks nearby. It is also important to remember that children also benefit greatly if the abused mothers receive appropriate support and care. Therefore, the mother seeking appropriate support is crucial not just for herself, but for her children as well.
Some children exposed to DV do not become victims or abusers because they know that violence is wrong.  They try to stop violence, by sometimes actively trying to protect their mothers, and sometimes trying to get help from the outside home. It has been said that children who have close and dependable relationships with adult figures cope better with violence at home because they know that they are not alone and that the violence is not their fault.  Children need to learn that DV is wrong, and they need to learn how to resolve conflicts non-violently by developing positive attitudes and values. They also need the opportunity to be nurtured by alternative role models along with attending programs focusing on reducing aggression and violence and facilitating healthy conflict resolution.
The following video captures the essence of children who witnessing DV at home:
Video:  “Monsters in the Closet – Domestic Violence from a Child’s View”
If you would like to help children who might be exposed to violence at home, tell them to call for help; seek a place of safety outside the home if there is danger inside the home; talk to a trustworthy adult who could be a neighbour, teacher, social worker, or anyone who can be trusted.
Making a decision to leave an abusive relationship is not an easy decision for any woman. However, when a mother decides to leave an abusive relationship in an attempt to move her life forward, this will create a much healthier environment for the mind and body of her children given they will not be hurt anymore.
Children’s Aid Society (CAS) agencies are available to take your call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Children’s Aid Society (CAS) Agencies in Toronto:
Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto:  416-395-1500
Children’s Aid Society of Toronto: 416-924-4640
Jewish Family and Child: 416-638-7800
Native Child and Family Services of Toronto: 416-969-8510


To find other CAS agencies in other regions:
Police: 911
(Non-emergency 416-808-2222)
Assaulted Women’s Helpline: 416-863-0511 (Toll Free: 1-866-863-0511)
Mobile: #SAFE(#7233)
Support services offered 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to provide crisis counselling, referrals to legal services and shelters, and safety planning.
Community Information Toronto: 211
Social services information in Toronto
The 519 Anti-Violence Program: 416-392-6874
Support services to DV survivors/victims of lesbian, gay , bisexual, trans-gender & sexual, inter-sexual.
Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic: 416-329-9149
Legal support and counselling to DV survivors/victims
Japanese Social Service : 416-385-9200
Project Blue Sky:
United Nations Secretary-General Study on Violence against Children (2006)
Statistics Canada (2012), Family Violence in Canada:
“Children’s exposure to intimate partner violence: impacts and interventions,” CN Wathen, HL MacMillan. Pediatric, Child Health, 2013; 18(8):419-422.
“Children’s Exposure to Intimate Partner Violence,” HL MacMillan, CN Wathen. Child Adolescent Psychiatric Clinic, N Am 23, 2014: N Am 23, 295-308)
“Behind Closed Doors, The impact of Domestic Violence on Children,” Stop Violence in the Home, The Body Shop International and UNICEF.
“Impact and Recovery: Children Growing Up in Home with DV” Yuri Morita, National Japanese Women Education Association research Journal, Vol. 14. March 2010
“Children as Victims of Domestic Violence” Kyoko Tokunaga, Education Counseling Room Newsletter, September 2010