Studies show that children who have observed or experienced domestic violence have higher rates of emotional disorders, substance abuse issues, difficulty in school and homelessness. They are also more likely to be the perpetrators of domestic violence in their adult lives. It is estimated that 15.5 million American children live in families in which domestic violence occurred at least once
during the past year, and seven million children live in families in which severe violence has occurred during that same time. The United Nation’s Secretary General’s Study on Violence Against Children
estimates that 275 million children worldwide are exposed to violence in the home.
Children who witness displays of domestic violence often develop an array of age-dependent negative effects, such as warped attitudes about resolving conflict with violence, and a propensity toward violence. They can become especially prone to fighting, lying, bullying or cheating. These issues often bleed over from school and home to difficulty in relationships throughout their lives.
While we know trauma can be caused by an abusive home situation, we also know that when properly identified and treated, the effects of domestic violence on children can be mitigated. One confounding variable is distinguishing the difference in effects between witnessing violence and being abused directly. Most of the current research is based on cognitive, behavioral and emotional effects of witnessing domestic violence. More research is needed for social workers to develop appropriate screening tools and intervention strategies for at-risk children. It is important to recognize that not all children who have witnessed or been the victim of domestic violence show adverse cognitive, behavioral and emotional effects. Several variables, including gender, intellect, socioeconomic status and support may lessen the effects. The studies on resilience are limited but are promising in identifying shielding factors.
Social workers can address the effects of domestic violence on children on several levels. They can refer children for counseling where children can learn strategies to cope with abuse suffered at the hands of an adult at home. Some social workers can even work with mothers and children together to increase the quality of parenting and increase positive outcomes for children. Even if a child has not suffered from abuse directly, but has witnessed incidents of violence, a social worker can ensure that the child receives help to cope with what they have seen. They can also help children develop heightened coping mechanisms and establish a supportive relationship with an adult they can trust. Children with poor coping skills are more likely to experience problems than children with a supportive social network.
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