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Impacts of Abuse on Children

Authors: Nancy Crespo, Darien Nisbett, Malalai Olomi

Experiencing or witnessing domestic violence (DV) may be traumatic and stressful, affecting every phase of a child’s life, growth, and development.1 Child abuse is defined as neglect, such as not providing food and clothing; physical, such as slapping, pushing, and hitting; emotional including berating, and threats of harming; and sexual abuse, either assault or incest.2 Children who witness or are exposed to DV between parents or intimate partner violence (IPV) is a form of child abuse as well, though indirectly.3 Indirect child abuse4 also has devastating consequences on children’s mental and physical health, even when it is not intended for them.5 It is estimated that 3.3 million to 10 million children have seen violent acts against their mothers.6 When IPV occurs in a household, the chances of child abuse are 1,500%.2  Approximately three in four children or 300 million children, ages 2-4 yrs old, are subjected to physical and psychological abuse on a regular basis by their parents and caregivers.7 

Direct Impact

There are potentially life-threatening risks for babies delivered by women who experience DV throughout their pregnancy.8,9 Prenatal abuse may alter the mother’s stress response, increasing her cortisol levels, which may be passed on to the fetus. This has been linked with emotional and behavioral trauma symptoms in the baby’s first year of life.8 In addition, babies showed three times the amount of inflammation in their bodies, considerably increasing their risk of poor physical and mental health10, compared to those born to women who did not experience DV.

Children who grow up in DV households experience fear, and anxiety, are constantly on guard, anticipate the next violent episode, and fear losing a parent, which produces a state of perpetual anxiety.8  The trauma of DV is enough to cause changes in children’s developing brains and the ability to cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).11 These changes are often linked to nightmares, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and anger. Children may also display sleeplessness, high activity levels, show intense worry about their safety or the safety of a parent.12 The insults, threats, and humiliation may cause psychological distress, emotional distress, lack of self-confidence, and a lack of self-esteem in children; which often disrupts the quality of their education and outcomes, such as dropping out of school and other learning challenges13, including impaired concentration, poor verbal, social, and motor skills.14 

Long-Term Impact

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are traumatic experiences in childhood, such as neglect, witnessing or experiencing abuse, and growing up in a household where mental health issues are prevalent.15 In ACEs research, data supports the Biological Embedding of Stress model, which suggests that stress builds up in the body over time due to repeated trauma and that disease develops once this stress level is reached.16 Children who witness or experience DV have a higher risk of developing long-term physical and mental health problems throughout their lives.17  Because of the abuse, children are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other health issues in adulthood.2 In addition, they are more likely to develop substance abuse, criminal activity, and suicidal ideation than children raised in non-DV households.9 They are at a higher risk of developing mental health problems due to juvenile delinquency, antisocial behavior, rising depression, anxiety, and PTSD.18 

Intersectionality and Help-Seeking Behaviors

Children may respond differently to DV when considering the influence of multiple factors of individual identity. Intersectionality is a framework for understanding how social categories like racial identity, class, gender, and nationality are interlinked; this framework allows us to consider the many facets of an individual’s identity and their unique experiences of discrimination and oppression.19 Intersecting factors of identity may explain why, how, and from whom adult survivors seek help and how individuals define abuse.20 

Cultural and immigration concerns may discourage some women and children from disclosing DV. Likewise, cultures that maintain gender roles and patriarchal family structures may cultivate environments that increase the risk of spousal abuse.21 Regional estimates of the number of children exposed to DV are highest in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Asia, according to the United Nations Millennium Project.22 

Cultural values and beliefs may include feelings of bringing shame and embarrassment upon the family and reliance on religion. Studies have shown that Native American, and Hispanic rural women report a dependence on God rather than healthcare providers to seek help for abuse.23 Silence has also been reported as a method of survival; discussing family violence with outsiders is considered taboo in multiple cultures, including the Latinx and Arab communities; hence it impacts children’s ability and willingness to disclose if the family system is working to protect family secrets.23,24                      

Risk Factors

Child abuse is not limited to gender, age group, ethnicity, culture, religion, and socioeconomic status, nor happen in isolation; rather, it occurs due to many risk factors. Children living in an abusive household when a parent, in most cases the father, is abusive towards another parent, the mother, are also battered 30% to 60% of the time.25 Additionally, when DV is prevalent in homes, mothers are more likely to abuse their children2, and children have a higher chance of being in abusive relationships as either the perpetrator or the victim.25 Observing patterns of violence modeled by parents can be role-specific and therefore has the potential to be gender-specific, as children often are socialized to imitate the behavior of the same-sex parent, hence boys will emulate the fathers’ abusive behaviors, while girls emulate their mothers as victims.26 Children who witness DV in their homes or are directly abused by a parent learn conflict resolution through force, control, and violence. This learned behavior contributes to DV in adulthood with their intimate partner and children.2,5 Similarly, children living in abusive homes experience low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression2 learn that living in an abusive relationship is normal and thus have a higher chance of being victims in their own relationships.27 In effect, the cycle of abuse leads to intergenerational trauma and intergenerational transmission of abuse.27,28

Further, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention17, parental mental health disorders, including depression, can be a high risk for child abuse and maltreatment. Parents with mental health issues exhibit “unstable parenting and conflicting family dynamics”(p.3).29 Lacking problem-solving skills to parent their children effectively, parents with mental health issues resort to aggressive and abusive behaviors. Additionally, parents with depressive symptoms, particularly mothers, may not have the emotional and physical bandwidth to care for their children to the extent that it causes neglect and abuse.30

Protective Factors and Resilience

Many protective factors mitigate the risks and help children build resilience, thus overcoming the adverse impact of child abuse.31 The National Child Traumatic Stress Network32 advocates for a positive parent-child relationship as a crucial protective factor. It is essential that a caring adult, most notably a non-violent parent, builds a supportive, healthy, and nurturing relationship with the child witnessing or experiencing violence at home. Having a parent or a trusted adult to talk to about their emotions, concerns, and day-to-day stressors helps ease any confusion and pain that the child may be enduring. The caring adult may also safety plan so that the child is safe, to some extent, and has a sense of belonging at home.

Moreover, having family resiliency helps identify and strengthen “processes that allow families to bear up under and rebound from distressing life experiences”(p. 203).33 Parents who can cope with the stressors of daily life or any crises are resilient, hence, they will be able to remain in control of their emotions and navigate in healthy ways during times of adversity. Participation in sports or other school activities also increases resiliency and acts as a protective factor for child abuse.17 Participating in sports or other school activities develops a sense of belonging and feeling valued, which increases self-esteem, confidence, social skills, and better overall physical and psychological health.34 

Building resilience is imperative for children to cope with risk factors in the context of DV. Protective factors buffer children from the many harmful effects of child abuse and neglect, thus, increasing resiliency. Protective factors start at early developmental stages when children develop secure attachments with their caregivers. It continues throughout their lives with factors that include their individual characteristics, such as cognitive ability and coping skills, family, and community.31 Yet, the most effective protective factor is the prevention31 of domestic violence, living and thriving in safe, healthy, and supportive homes, free of violence. 

If you or someone you know may be experiencing or witnessing domestic violence, help is available:

NISA Helpline: 1-888-275-6472

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233, SMS:  Text “START” to 8878

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

National Sexual Assault Hotline – RAINN: 1-800-656-4673