Domestic Violence and Children

Children and youth who are exposed to domestic violence experience emotional, mental, and social damage that can affect their developmental growth. Some children lose the ability to feel empathy for others. Others feel socially isolated, unable to make friends as easily due to social discomfort or confusion over what is acceptable. 

Exposure to domestic violence has also been linked to poor school performance. Children who grow up with domestic violence may have impaired ability to concentrate; difficulty in completing school work; and lower scores on measures of verbal, motor, and social skills.

In addition to these physical, behavioral, psychological, and cognitive effects, children who have been exposed to domestic violence often learn destructive lessons about the use of violence and power in relationships. Children may learn that it is acceptable to exert control or relieve stress by using violence, or that violence is in some way linked to expressions of intimacy and affection. These lessons can have a powerful negative effect on children in social situations and relationships throughout childhood and in later life.

What is an ACE?

An Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) is defined as experiencing any of the following categories of abuse, neglect, or loss prior to age 18:

  • Physical abuse by a parent

  • Emotional abuse by a parent

  • Sexual abuse by anyone

  • Domestic violence

  • Emotional neglect

  • Physical neglect

The ACE Study

Beginning in 1994, the "adverse childhood experiences" (ACE) Study, a partnership between the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente assessed the relationship between adult health risk behaviors and childhood abuse and household dysfunction.

The study began with a sample of 9,508 individuals representing a 70.5% response rate.

Findings showed that people who experienced four or more adverse childhood events had the following:

1. Increased risk for smoking, alcoholism, and drug abuse

2. Increased risk for depression and suicide attempts

3. Poor self-related health

4. 50 or more sexual partners


Children are exposed to or experience domestic violence in many ways. They may hear one parent/caregiver threaten the other, observe a parent who is out of control or reckless with anger, see one parent assault the other, or live with the aftermath of a violent assault. Many children are affected by hearing threats to the safety of their caregiver, regardless of whether it results in physical injury. Children who live with domestic violence are also at increased risk to become direct victims of child abuse. In short, domestic violence poses a serious threat to children's emotional, psychological, and physical well-being, particularly if the violence is chronic.


Not all children exposed to violence are affected equally or in the same ways. For many children, exposure to domestic violence may be traumatic, and their reactions are similar to children's reactions to other traumatic stressors.

Short-Term Effects of Domestic Violence on Children

Children’s immediate reactions to domestic violence may include:

  • Sleeplessness

  • Nightmares

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • High activity levels

  • Increased aggression

  • Increased anxiety about being separated from a parent

  • Intense worry about their safety or the safety of a parent

Long-Term Effects of Domestic Violence on Children

Long-term effects, especially from chronic exposure to domestic violence, may include:

  • Physical health problems

  • Behavior problems in adolescence (e.g. juvenile delinquency, alcohol, substance abuse)

  • Emotional difficulties in adulthood (e.g. depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD)

Citations › ... › ACE Study