by Ciana Parker, Domestic Violence Outreach Advocate
“He never hurts the children, only me.” Many victims and survivors of domestic violence think along the same line of thought, that because a child living within the home was never physically harmed, that the abuser never caused the child harm. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Adverse childhood experiences, also known as ACE scores or ACEs, have been used to determine the risk a child might have of developing drug or alcohol abuse disorders, mental health problems, and even heart problems or obesity. One of the factors considered in an ACE score is witnessing or experiencing domestic violence (DV) within the home or a parent that experiences intimate partner violence (IPV). While the child themselves may never be physically harmed, the damage from living in a home with DV or IPV can be life-lasting.
Studies support the idea that domestic violence or intimate partner violence can even affect an infant within the mother’s womb throughout pregnancy. Not only does the mother’s mental health and physical health risk harm, but the flooding of certain chemicals within her system, such as cortisol, can create chemical imbalances within the growing fetus’s brain. This can lead to an infant being born with a low birth rate, the risk of premature labor, and delayed fetal development in the pregnancy. Many pregnant women experiencing domestic violence or IPV avoid seeking medical care throughout the pregnancy, due to fear of questions or someone finding out the ongoing problems at home and miss out on important anatomy scans that could detect a concern in the fetal growth.
Infants can show symptoms of the trauma DV or IPV that has been experienced in the household in the forms of sleep regression, inability to gain weight, loss of skills previously mastered, and missing or unable to meet milestones within the normal timeframe. Again, some parents avoiding seeking advice from pediatricians due to fear of judgement or questions of what is going on within the home, putting the infant at a greater disadvantage of falling even further behind and losing the chance to gain those skills or creating more health problems with the child not gaining weight. Just to clarify, these symptoms are not strictly related to DV or IPV exposure, but DV or IPV exposure increases the likelihood of an infant experiencing these symptoms.
Entering into toddler and preschool age, symptoms of DV or IPV can mirror similar symptoms from infancy, such as sleep regression or loss of skills. A major one that can cause a lot of frustration in parents is regression in potty training. Children that had previously been consistent in using the toilet or informing an adult of needing to use the toilet, suddenly begin to have accidents more often than before. There can be delays in speech, gross motor skills such as walking or jumping, and fine motor skills like stacking things or picking up small items. Behavioral struggles may begin to appear, such as detachment from adults, withdrawing from groups, flinching or reactive to sudden movements, becoming verbally or physically aggressive towards peers or other adults, or symptoms that mirror illness such as headaches or stomachaches, depression, anxiety, self-harm, or being considered hyper-active.
As we have entered a post-pandemic era, with COVID still being a threat to many communities, the impacts on children are showing up in many different forms. Having been isolated with parents and caregivers, the chances of children witnessing and experiencing domestic violence (DV) or intimate partner violence (IPV) increased dramatically. On top of that, these infants to young children who had limited to no social interactions which exhibited healthier relationships could develop a perception that a volatile and fearful environment is the only way that families live. Without socialization with other people, children with homes in which DV and IPV are prevalent also missed out on creating positive social skills, and it is possible that there will be increased aggression in children for the next generation post COVID.
Intimate partner violence and domestic violence affect everyone within the household, no matter what age. People do not have to be physically harmed nor the object of the abuse to encounter symptoms and adverse childhood experiences.
If you, or someone in your family is concerned about, or encountering DV or IPV, please reach out for help. The Family Violence Prevention Program crisis line is 775-722-8794.
If there is concern for a child’s development, please speak to your pediatrician.
Nevada Early Intervention Services (NEIS) also has an online directory, where a parent can obtain more information about the services in their locations. The evaluation of a child, under 3 years of age, is free, and they take most insurances for any follow-up needs or services that benefit the growth of the child. The earlier the intervention, the better, and the sooner a parent and children leave a violent situation, the better for all involved.
- Creative, S. (2018, December 18). Domestic Violence & its impact on children ages 0-5. The Whole Child. https://www.thewholechild.org/parent-resources/age-0-5/parenting-tips-age-0-5/domestic-violence-its-impact-on-children-ages-0-5/
- Early intervention programs. (2021). https://dhhs.nv.gov/Programs/IDEA/Early_Intervention_Programs/
- Effects of domestic violence on children. Effects of domestic violence on children | Office on Women’s Health. (2021). https://www.womenshealth.gov/relationships-and-safety/domestic-violence/effects-domestic-violence-children
- How does domestic violence affect children? (2014). https://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/resources/children_domestic_violence_affect_children.pdf
- Intimate partner violence. Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2021). https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/systemwide/domviolence/impact/#:~:text=Offers%20a%20web-based%20repository%20of%20interventions%20and%20resources,of%20Philadelphia%2C%20Center%20for%20Injury%20Research%20and%20Prevention
- Peterson, S. (2019, April 25). Effects. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/trauma-types/intimate-partner-violence/effects