Children and domestic violence

Domestic violence poses a constant risk to a child's development and their ability to form secure attachment relationships. Family interactions significantly impact a child's physical, psychological, and social well-being, gene function and neurophysiological maturation. The child's age and individual characteristics, such as temperament and intellectual abilities, influence the potential for traumatization. You are not alone; do not hesitate to reach out for help.

Violence passed from generation to generation

Unfortunately, many times, violence experienced or witnessed during childhood causes a person to end up in a violent relationship either as a victim or perpetrator.

The safety and care provided by parents are crucial for a child's healthy development. Transgenerational traumatization occurs when parents who have experienced trauma in their childhood raise their children based on their own experiences, often shadowed by them.

The parent's processing of their experiences is vital. Traumatic experiences are stored in implicit memory, separate from cognitive or linguistic connections. The birth of a child can activate memory traces, becoming a crisis factor even in positive circumstances. Stress management skills are tested, and individuals may rely on familiar patterns from their childhood.

For someone who has experienced trauma in their upbringing, the birth of their child and the act of parenting can become a crisis point. Suppressed childhood sorrows, emotions, and traumas may resurface uncontrollably during this period.

No child should live in a family where violence occurs

Even if a parent who engages in violent behaviour within their relationship is otherwise capable of providing good parenting, the child's trust in that parent is compromised.

Understandably, someone who has experienced violence may rationalise and justify staying in the relationship for the sake of the perpetrator's parenting. However, when parents consider solutions for their own lives, they must prioritise the best interests of the child or children. No child should live in a family where violence occurs.

Childhood stress has profound effects on the brain

Domestic violence causes stress. Severe childhood stress has long-lasting and profound effects on brain structures, essential functions, and subsequently on behaviour, emotional well-being, and overall health, even in adulthood. Stress can significantly impact brain areas and cause them to shrink in size.

Early care and nurturing are crucial for brain development during the formative years when the nervous system undergoes rapid changes.

The environment holds immense influence, particularly in the first 2-3 years of life. The hippocampus, responsible for memory and learning, can be damaged and reduced in size due to stress.

Children have conflicting emotions related to violence

Often, children feel a sense of responsibility for the behaviour of the abusive parent, believing that they somehow caused it. They may harbour anger towards their other parent for not standing up for themselves and their children. Sometimes, children can think that this parent's behaviour has somehow provoked violent behaviour in the other parent.

Despite these conflicting emotions, children deeply love their parents, worry about their well-being, and often don't talk about their difficult experiences. Some children experience guilt for not intervening to stop the abuse and may try to please their parents out of fear of violence. They may try to get their parents to fulfil the perpetrator's desires to avoid further harm. In such situations, the child seeks refuge from their violent parent.

Children are concerned about their parents, even the violent one

Many children also express concern about the well-being of the perpetrator of violence. They may grieve the thought of the parent being left alone or worry that the parent will end up in prison. Especially if the parent has made threats of harm towards others or themselves, the child may be anxious about the safety of the parent.

Every child loves their parent, and it is important to acknowledge that. The child should be informed that efforts are being made to help the abusive parent. They are not being abandoned, but they must be willing to accept the offered assistance. Even an abusive parent is still a parent.

Children are naturally loyal towards their parents

Children are naturally loyal to their parents, and it is essential for them to feel accepted by both parents. They may have been prohibited from disclosing what has been happening at home to others outside the family.

The child's perspective on the situation may differ significantly from the parent's, and it can only be understood through open communication with the child. Violence can become normalized for the child. Thus, it is important to emphasise that violence is not acceptable and explain that it is always wrong.

Children observe, hear, and sense everything

Parents often mistakenly believe that children are unaware of violence and, therefore, do not need to discuss it with them. This is a misjudgment. Children observe, hear, and sense everything. Even young children who cannot yet speak are aware of the atmosphere at home, and these experiences are stored in their subconscious minds.

Parents may also assume there is no need to disclose the complete truth to the child or that they only grasp events superficially and easily forget them. It can be surprising for parents to discover how accurately children can describe acts of violence, even when they thought the children were unaware or asleep.

An open, honest conversation with the child is crucial

The child is aware of what has happened at home and understands that going to a shelter or a safe place is connected to those events. It is fair to provide the child with the truth they deserve. It is crucial to have open and honest conversations with the child, using real names, about the need to leave for safety rather than misleading them, e.g., by equating it to a vacation. Otherwise, they may associate, e.g., vacations with violence, parental injuries, crying, secrecy, and unusual arrangements, leading to distressing associations.

The child has a right to know why they have left home, that what occurred was wrong and possibly a crime, and that they are now safe, and if they are in a shelter, professionals are assisting them. This knowledge can help calm the child and alleviate their fears, which they may have hidden to protect their already burdened parent from additional distress.

A parent sets a positive example by actively speaking up, demonstrating that open communication about everything is beneficial and they can overcome challenges together.

Children must be protected from violence

Raising a child in an environment characterised by understanding, safety, and affection is crucial. The child must not be subjected to punishment or treated disrespectfully. They must be protected from all forms of violence. The Act on Child Custody and Right of Access section 1 states that: “ A child shall be protected from all forms of physical and mental violence, maltreatment and exploitation.
A child shall be brought up with understanding, security and affection. A child must not be subdued, corporally punished or treated offensively in any other way.
The growth of a child towards independence, responsibility and adulthood shall be supported and encouraged.”

If parents cannot protect their children and offer them a safe environment, it is a matter of child protection. The basic principle is that if an intervention in the family’s affairs is necessary, the least invasive route to help the family is preferred. Such primary services are called support measures in open care. A child is placed in alternative care only if the support measures in open care are insufficient or do not provide care in the child's best interests. Sometimes, however, violence or threat of violence may require an emergency placement.

In Finland, society helps parents and children in a variety of ways. There are many services that are open to everyone, such as maternity and child health clinics, early childhood education and care institutions and schools.

Read more: Support for everyday lifeexternal link icon Child welfare servicesexternal link icon

Witnessing or experiencing violence causes serious harm

Witnessing or experiencing violence in the home causes profound emotional, psychological, and developmental harm. Providing support and intervention for children exposed to domestic violence is crucial. Counselling, therapy, and support groups can help them process their experiences, heal from trauma, and develop coping strategies. Creating a safe and nurturing environment and ensuring their overall well-being is essential for their recovery and resilience, as well as for breaking the intergenerational cycle of violence. Here are some ways domestic violence can impact children:

Emotional distress

Children may experience various negative emotions, including fear, anxiety, sadness, and anger. They may feel unsafe, constantly on edge, and struggle with trust issues.

Behavioural problems

Children exposed to domestic violence may exhibit behavioural problems such as aggression, defiance, or withdrawal. They may have difficulty managing their emotions and have trouble forming healthy relationships.

Academic difficulties

The stress and trauma of domestic violence can impair a child's ability to concentrate, leading to academic challenges. They may have difficulties in school, lower grades, and reduced educational achievement.

Physical health issues

Children in violent households may experience physical health problems such as headaches, stomachaches, and sleep disturbances. The chronic stress can weaken their immune systems and lead to other health issues.

Developmental delays

Domestic violence can hinder a child's healthy development. They may experience speech, language, cognitive abilities, and social skills delays due to the toxic environment they are exposed to.

Long-term psychological impact

Children who grow up in an environment of domestic violence are at higher risk of developing mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse problems later in life.

Interpersonal difficulties

Witnessing violence can distort a child's understanding of healthy relationships. They may struggle to establish trust, maintain healthy boundaries, and form secure attachments.

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