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The Effects of an Abusive Man on His Children

Gallery of Children's Art

Domestic violence affects every member of the family, including children. Family violence creates a home environment where children live in constant fear.

Children who witness family violence are affected in ways similar to children who are physically abused. They are often unable to establish nurturing bonds with either parent. Children are at greater risk for abuse and neglect if they live in a violent home.

Statistics show that over 3 million children witness violence in their home each year. Those who see and hear violence in the home suffer physically and emotionally; often for a lifetime.

"Families under stress produce children under stress. If a spouse is being abused and there are children in the home, the children are affected by the abuse." (Ackerman and Pickering, 1989)

Dynamics of domestic violence are unhealthy for children:

  • Control of family by one dominant member
  • Abuse of a parent
  • Isolation
  • Protecting the "family secret"

Children react to their environment in different ways, and reactions can vary depending on the child's gender and age.

Children exposed to family violence are more likely to develop social, emotional, psychological and/or behavioral problems than those who are not. Recent research indicates that children who witness domestic violence show more anxiety, low self esteem, depression, anger, and temperament problems than children who do not witness violence in the home. The trauma they experience can show up in emotional, behavioral, social and physical disturbances that effect their development and frequently continue into adulthood.

Some potential effects:


  • Grief for family and personal losses
  • Shame, guilt, and self blame
  • Confusion about conflicting feelings toward parents
  • Fear of abandonment, or expressing emotions, the unknown or personal injury
  • Anger
  • Depression and feelings of helplessness and powerlessness
  • Embarrassment


  • Acting out or withdrawing
  • Aggressiveness or passiveness
  • Refusing to go to school
  • Care taking; acting as a parent substitute
  • Lying to avoid confrontation
  • Rigid defenses
  • Excessive attention seeking
  • Bedwetting and nightmares
  • Out of control behavior
  • Reduced intellectual competency (poor school performance)
  • Manipulation, dependency, mood swings


  • Isolation from friends and relatives
  • Stormy relationships
  • Difficulty in trusting, especially adults
  • Poor anger management and problem solving skills
  • Excessive social involvement to avoid home
  • Passivity with peers or bullying
  • Engaged in exploitative relationships as perpetrator (usually son) or victim (usually daughter)


  • Somatic complaints: unexplained headaches and stomachaches; aches and pains in general
  • Nervous, anxious, short attention span
  • Tired and lethargic
  • Frequently ill
  • Poor personal hygiene
  • Regression in development (reverting back to thumb sucking, bed wetting, soiling pants)
  • High risk play

Self abuse

  • Substance abuse
  • Promiscuity
  • Self-mutilation
  • Dangerous driving

Giving Children Love and Care

Nurturing children from abusive homes can bring healing to their lives. In giving needed love and care to children, it is important for a parent to reflect these essentials:

  • Trust and Respect
    Acknowledge children's right to have their own feelings, friends, activities and opinions. Promote independence, allow for privacy and respect their feelings for the other parent. Believe in them and their feelings.
  • Provide Emotional Security
    Talk and act so children feel safe and comfortable expressing themselves. Be gentle. Be dependable and consistent.
  • Provide Physical Security
    Provide healthy food, safe shelter and appropriate clothing. Teach personal hygiene and nutrition. Monitor safety. Maintain a family routine. Attend to wounds, both emotional and physical.
  • Provide Discipline
    Be consistent; ensure that rules are appropriate to age and development of the child. Be clear about limits and expectations. Use discipline to give instruction, not to punish.
  • Give Time
    Participate in your children's lives, in their activities, school, sports, special events, celebrations and friends. Include your children in your activities. Reveal who you are to your children.
  • Encourage and Support
    Be affirming. Encourage children to follow their interests. Let children disagree with you. Recognize improvement. Teach new skills. Let them make mistakes.
  • Give Affection
    Express verbal and physical affection. Be affectionate when your children are physically or emotionally hurt.
  • Care for You
    Give yourself personal time. Keep yourself healthy. Maintain friendships. Accept love.

Child Victim/Witness of Domestic Violence

Age-specific indicators


  • Basic need for attachment is disrupted
  • Routines around feeding/sleeping are disturbed
  • Injuries while "caught in the crossfire"
  • Irritability or inconsolable crying (colic)
  • Frequent illness
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Diarrhea
  • Developmental delays
  • Lack of responsiveness


  • Somatic or psychosomatic complaints
  • Regression
  • Irritability
  • Fearful of being alone
  • Extreme separation anxiety (particularly with non-violent parent)
  • Developmental delays: regressing back
  • Sympathetic toward mother, even fighting abuser to defend her

Elementary Age

  • Vacillate between being eager to please and being hostile
  • Verbal about home life
  • Developmental delays
  • Externalized behavior problems: acting out
  • Inadequate social skill development: acting anti-social
  • Gender role modeling creates conflict/confusion


  • Behavior problems become more serious
  • Increased internalized behavior difficulties: depression, isolation, withdrawal
  • Emotional difficulties: shame, fear, confusion, rage
  • Poor social skills
  • Developmental delays
  • Protection of mother, sees her as "weak" and needing their protection
  • Guarded/secretive about family with others


  • Internalized and externalized behavior problems can become extreme and dangerous: drug/alcohol, truancy, gangs, sexual acting out, pregnancy, runaway, suicidal.
  • Dating relationships may reflect violence learned or witnessed in the home

§ From Boulder (CO) County Safehouse


Each year an estimated 3.3 million children are exposed to violence against their mothers or female caretakers by family members. (American Psychological Association, Violence and the Family: Report of the APA Presidential Task Force on Violence and the Family, 1996)

  • Studies show that child abuse occurs in 30 to 60 percent of family violence cases that involve families with children. (J.L. Edleson, "The overlap between child maltreatment and woman battering." Violence Against Women, February, 1999.)
  • A survey of 6,000 American families found that 50 percent of men who assault their wives, also abuse their children. (Pagelow, "The Forgotten Victims: Children of Domestic Violence," 1989)
  • Research shows that 80 to 90 percent of children living in homes where there is domestic violence are aware of the violence. (Pagelow, "Effects of Domestic Violence on Children," Mediation Quarterly, 1990)
  • The number one predictor of child abuse is woman abuse. (Stark and Flitcraft, "Women at Risk: A Feminist Perspective on Child Abuse," International Journal of Health Services, 1988)
  • The more severe the abuse of the mother, the worse the child abuse. (Bowker, Arbitell, and McFerron, "On the Relationship Between Wife Beating and Child Abuse," Perspectives on Wife Abuse, 1988)
  • Some 80 percent of child fatalities within the family are attributable to fathers or father surrogates. (Bergman, Larsen and Mueller, "Changing Spectrum of Serious Child Abuse," Pediatrics, 1986)
  • In families where the mother is assaulted by the father, daughters are at risk of being sexually abused by the father or father figure at a rate 6.51 times greater than girls in non-abusive families (Bowker, Arbitell and McFerron, 1988)
  • A child's exposure to the father abusing the mother is the strongest risk fact for transmitting violent behavior from one generation to the next (American Psychological Association, Violence and the Family: Report of the APA Presidential Task Force on Violence and the Family,1996)
  • Male children who witness the abuse of mothers by fathers are more likely to become men who batter in adulthood than those male children from homes free of violence (Rosenbaum and O'Leary, "Children: The Unintended Victims of Marital Violence," American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 1981)
  • Older children are frequently assaulted when they intervene to defend or protect their mothers. (Hilberman and Munson, "Sixty Battered Women," Victimology: An International Journal, 1977-78)
  • In a 36-month study of 146 children, ages 11-17 who came from homes where there was domestic violence, all sons over the age of 14 attempted to protect their mothers from attacks. Some 62 percent were injured in the process. (Roy, 1988)

Adapted from Speak Out

In a study of how children intervene in adult domestic violence, researchers found that 52% of the mothers reported that their children intervened by yelling from another room during the abuse, 53% reported occasional yelling by children in the same room, 23% reported occasional physical intervention by their children, and 21% of the mothers said their children called someone else for help.

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