Office of the Prosecuting Attorney

Domestic Violence... Are My Kids at Risk?

"In his second week at the shelter, five-year old Jimmy walks lazily past his mother and hits her with an opened hand on her thigh. Mom turns to look at Jimmy and with a pleading voice says, "Jimmy, don't do that" to his back. As he exits the room, he looks over his shoulder and says, "Leave me alone bitch".

They have been called the forgotten or unintended victims of family violence. They are the children of abusive relationships and marriages. While their parents are caught-up in their own conflicts and stress, the problems and needs of these children are often overlooked. By the time most children arrive at the shelter they have acquired certain beliefs about the world and the people in it. They may have come to believe that while anger is dangerous, it is an appropriate way to resolve differences. They may conclude that violence is a parent's right, compromising means giving in, and that expressing feelings signifies weakness and ultimately violence.

Even at five years old, Jimmy has already come to equate men with hurting women and women with being hurt by men. Children who have already modeled the batterer's behavior and/or believe love and violence go together, need more convincing, after the violence has stopped, that a battering relationship is not a normal one.

There are several general reactions that children from violent homes are likely to show. The same emotional reaction can be acted out differently according to the child's age.

Feeling Responsible for the Abuse

  • A child might think,"If I had been a good child, no one would have got hit."

Constant Anxiety

  • Even when things are calm, one never knows when the next fight will start.

Guilt for Not Stopping the Abuse

  • Children also experience guilt over the good feelings they have about the abuser.


  • Children who are separated from the abuser are in the process of grieving over the loss. Children may also grieve over losing the lifestyle and positive image of the abuser they had before the violence began.


  • The idea of not knowing how one feels or having two opposite emotions at the same time is very difficult for children. A child who says, "I don't know how I feel about it", may not be hedging but rather is confused about feelings.

Fear of Abandonment

  • Children removed from one parent as a result of violent acts may have strong fears that the other parent could also leave them or die. Thus, a child may refuse to leave their parent, even for short periods of time.

Need for Excessive Adult Attention

  • This need can be especially troublesome for parents who are trying to deal with their own pain and decisions.

Fear of Physical Harm to Themselves

  • A significant percentage of witnessing children are also abused. They may worry that the abuser will find them and abduct or harm them or that the abuser will be angry and retaliate when they return home.


  • Especially for older children, sensitivity to the stigma of spouse abuse may result in shame.

Worry About the Future

  • The uncertainty within their daily lives may make children feel that life will continue to be unpredictable.

SOURCE: Virginia Child Protection Newsletter, Volume 19, Spring, 1986

Children who have witnessed their parents fighting communicate the stress they feel in many ways. Some show signs of what psychologists call "regressive behaviors", reverting back to habits of very young childhood: thumb-sucking, bed wetting, or temper tantrums. These children are trying to find peace of mind by escaping to earlier, safer times when they did not have to worry about violence or were unaware of it. In extreme cases, such a way of coping with inescapable strain and pressures has resulted in schizophrenia or other serious emotional problems.

Many children in domestic violence shelters "act up", particularly when they first arrive. They may appear extremely aggressive, noisy, and rowdy, fighting with each other or finding ways to be disruptive. Many younger children are not old enough to know that something major has happened between their parents. Many don't realize anything is wrong until they arrive at a shelter without their own toys or other possessions. Many just sense the tension in their mother. Later, they will ask when they will see Dad, will he be coming to visit them, and so forth. Like their mothers, they are unsure of the family's future.

There is a more serious longer-lasting kind of effect of living in a violent home. Children may not be directly injured, but they suffer from emotional problems. Some children even participate in their parent's abuse. One woman, in tears, told how her husband would persuade their son to hold her legs while the husband sat on her chest and beat her face with this fists.

Some children mimic their abuser's behavior. This mimicking can go as far as repeating parts of conversations that went on during the abusive act. Children often say things to each other that they would never say in front of their parents.

The most disturbing element in even the relatively mild cases of family violence where children are not being beaten is the unknown after-effects of being exposed to violence in the home. How long it continues to affect children undoubtedly differs from person to person from family to family. But we know it does. It's up to us to take a closer look at this problem now.

How to make your children safer

  • Teach them not to get in the middle of a fight, even if they want to help.
  • Teach them how to get to safety, to call 911, to give your address and phone number of police.
  • Teach them who to call for help.
  • Teach them to stay out of the kitchen where there are sharp objects.
  • Tell them not to hide in closets, under beds or in trapped places.
  • Teach them to go outside and call for help.
  • Give the principal at school or the daycare center a copy of your court order; tell them not to release your children to anyone without talking to you first; use a password so you can be sure it is you on the phone; give them a photo of the abuser.
  • Make sure the children know who to tell at school if they see the abuser.
  • Make sure that school knows not to give your address or phone number to anyone

Do you recognize any of these in your children?

  • Threaten each other and others with knives/guns
  • Exhibit same abuse scenarios and "worse" on toys
  • Feel they deserve to be treated that way
  • May have low self-esteem, poor self-image, poor definition of self
  • High risk for alcohol, drugs, sexually acting out, running away, isolation, loneliness, fear
  • Face continual hopefulness that situation will improve
  • Exhibit bargaining behavior with parents
  • Increased social and peer isolation
  • Has shaky definition of self; grappling with child-like responses of parents for modeling

Source: Cass County Coalition Against Domestic Violence 1993