According to the Childhood Domestic Violence Association, it is estimated that more than 5 million children in the U.S. witness domestic violence in the home each year. Studies find that children exposed to domestic violence are at a higher risk for both short and long term emotional, social and behavioral difficulties. Moreover, children exposed to domestic violence experience additional stressors associated with the trauma of repeated separations, child custody battles, and isolation from extended family members.
While the research on the effects of domestic violence on children continues to grow, current evidence suggests these children are at risk of increased anxiety and depression; social isolation; increased physical and psychological aggression; higher risk for future abuse and neglect; and a propensity to perpetuate the cycle of domestic violence. Additionally, the higher their exposure to childhood trauma, the higher their rates of illness, disease and criminality as adults.
In order to respond to the overwhelming issues associated with domestic violence, child welfare professionals continue to seek a greater understanding of these issues. They do so by identifying the children impacted by domestic violence and by assessing the needs of these youth to provide appropriate treatment.
While many see removing the child from the unsafe situation as the best solution, it is not the only action step needed to promote long term safety and positive outcomes for these youth. Once a child has been removed from the situation, it is important to provide support to help them overcome the negative effects of the experience.
Below are five tips to support children impacted by domestic violence.
- Reduce stress and build coping skills. Encourage children affected by domestic violence to participate in pro-social activities, such as, playing sports, creating art, writing, exercising, taking deep breaths or spending time with a pet. Engaging in these activities can help reduce stress.
- Help children manage their emotions. It is important for caregivers to model appropriate ways to manage emotions. It is also important for caregivers to use supportive language when children express their emotions. By responding empathically with reassurance, caregivers can help to calm youth and aid them in working through these difficult symptoms of witnessing domestic violence.
- Seek out community resources. Seek services to help children manage the emotional responses from these experiences. Therapeutic counseling is often needed for children, who have witnessed or been victims of domestic violence. Youth Villages offers intensive in-home treatment services that work with families and youth dealing with issues that may be associated with domestic violence.
- Build calm, stable environments. Children exposed to trauma may be more sensitive to common elements in their environment, such as, lighting, noise, and changes in structure or routine. This is due to the impact of trauma on the child’s developing brain. These brain impacts can make youth more sensitive to environmental differences. A quieter environment with lower or dim level lighting can help them feel safe. Similar to this, providing structure and consistent routines can help the youth to remain calm.
- Manage challenging behaviors in an empathic, supportive, and healthy way. A child’s behavior can be a sign that they are struggling with trauma, and can also signal that they need to feel safe and in control. By responding with empathy and using a supportive approach to solving problems associated with challenging behaviors, children can build the skills needed to regulate themselves and make positive choices. This can help the child to feel empowered and can aid in increasing resiliency.
If you or someone you know is affected by domestic violence, help is available. Call the national domestic violence hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or visit www.thehotline.org to find resources, tips and to be connected with help in your community.
Dr. Rebekah Lemmons, Program Consultant with Youth Villages, a national nonprofit that children and families live successfully with intensive, proven treatments and programs. Learn more at www.youthvillages.org.
Youth Villages has helped nearly 12,000 young people through the program since it began in 1999. YVLifeSet is one of the largest programs helping transition-age young people in the country and one of the only to show, positive impacts in multiple areas of a young person’s life in a large randomized trial. A five-year study by MDRC showed that YVLifeSet decreases homelessness, increases employment and earnings, increases mental health and decreases domestic violence. The community-based program pairs young people with specialists who are specifically trained in navigating the complexities of the transition to adulthood. Specialists have small caseloads and see young people face-to-face at least once each week, helping them set and achieve their goals around housing, transportation, education, employment, health and relationships through experiential learning.
Learn more at partnerwithyv.org