Witnessing Violence Fact Sheet

Joanne Davis, Ph.D.
Ernestine Briggs, Ph
National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center
Medical University of South Carolina

Society has become increasingly aware of the negative impact of child abuse on children’s’ behavioral, emotional, and social functioning. Research has shown that children do not have to be the direct targets of violence to be affected by it. Indeed, the research on negative outcomes associated with exposure to violence has grown exponentially. Children may be exposed to various types of violence including violence in the media (e.g., television or movies), in the shool or in the community, and between adults at home.

This fact sheet will focus primarily on children’s experiences of witnessing domestic violence.

What Kinds of Violent Activities do Children Witness? 
The violence that children are exposed to in their homes can vary in frequency, duration, degree of reciprocity, and severity (Wolak & Finkelhor, 1998). Although domestic violence is typically thought of in terms of a physical assault, it includes verbal and emotional abuse, sexual assaults, and murder.

Edleson (1999) discussed the different ways in which children can witness or be a part of domestic violence (see also Ganley & Schechter, 1996). These include witnessing the actual violent events occurring, hearing the vioe, being physically assaulted while near the mother during a violent incident, being taken hostage in order to force the mother’sition, and being forced to participate in the violence.

Also, some children ribe coping with the aftermath of domestic violence as particly stressful. After a violent t, a child may have to aid an injured parent, call the police, witness the arrest or removal of the offending parent, relocate to a shelter and/or cope with a host of persistent family stressors (e.g., poverty, substance abuse, mental and physical illness).

How Many Children are Affected?
Prevalence estimates of children who witness domestic violence vary widely. Some commonly cited figures suggest that 3.3 million children and 10 million teenagers are exposed to domestic violence each year (Carlson, 1984; Straus, 1992). Other studies suggest that approximately 20% to 41% of adults recalled observing domestic violence when they were younger (Henning, Leitenberg, Coffey, Turner, & Bennett, 1996; Silvern 1995). Differences in prevalence rates are a function of several methodological issues including age and geographic location of participants sampled, and retrospective versus prospve nature of the studies examined. Despite the variation in the prevalence
estimates, most researchers would agree that a substantial number of children are exposed to violence in their homes.

Correlates of Witnessing Violence 
Children who witness domestic violence (i.e., violence between parents, guardians, or caregivers) are often referred to as the "forgotten" victims since interventions generally target the adult victim or perpetrator (Groves, Zukerman, Marans, & Cohen, 1993). Most of the research in this area sugge that children exposed to domestic violence are at increased risk for emotional, behavior, academic, and social problems (Kolbo, Blakely, & Engelman, 1996; Pfouts et. al., 1982). More specifically, children exposed to domestic violence may exhibimediate and long-term problems with anxiety, depression, anger, self-esteem, aggression, delinquency, interpersonal relationships, and substance abuse (Carlson,1990; Jouriles, Murphy, O’Leary, 1989; Silvern, et al., 1995; Sternberg, et al., 1993). Moreover, children who are exposed to domestic violence may react in ways that fur augment their risk for negative outcomes. For example, some children run away from violent homes, which increases the risk of substance use, prostitution, homelessness, physical illness or injury, and victimization.

The Association Between Child Abuse and Witnessing Domestic Violence 
Children in violent homes are at higher risk for being abused than children in non-violent homes. McKibben, DeVos, and Newberger (1989) found that 40-60% of mothers of abused children were abused themselves by their partner, compared to 13% of mothers of unabused children. In a study investigating the effects of witnessing domestic violence, Hughes et al. (1989) compared children who had ‘only’ witnessed violence, children who were abused and witnessed violence, and those who experienced neither. The investigators found that children who experience both direct abuse and witnessed violence exhibited the most symptoms, and the group that did not experience either exhibited the least. 

Revictimization and Other Long-Term Correlates
Women who witnessed domestic violence as children may be at higher risk for being victimized in their own relationships. Experiencing revictimization may also lead to greater difficulties in the women’s functioning (i.e., post traumatic stress disorder, depression) as adults. In a study of 201 battered women, Sonnleitner, Basil, and Van Hasselt (1999) found that women who also experienced or witnessed violence in their families of origin reported greater depression and hopelessness. Silvern et al. (1995) found that witnessing domestic violence was associated with depression, low self-esteem, and trauma symptoms in adult women and trauma symptoms in adult men. Henning et al. (1996) surveyed adult women in the community and found that those who reported witnessing domestic violence as children reported higher psychological distress and lower social adjustment than those who had not witnessed violence.  

Limitations of Research and Future Directions 
Although the research on exposure to domestic violence is steadily improving, there are limitations and methodological shortcomings that must be addressed:

    Frequency, severity, recency, type of violence, and other important characteristics associated with a child’s exposure to violence are rarely assessed and reported by researchers.

    Child abuse and neglect often are not assessed despite the high risk in this population.

    Most studies have included children residing in shelters. Although this is an important group to study, the chronicity and severity of the violence they witness may not accurately represent the range of experiences and symptoms reported by children exposed to less severe forms of domestic violence. Also, many of these studies fail to differentiate between children who witness violence and those who experience it.  

    Little attention has been paid to the demographic characteristics and the differential developmental needs of children exposed to domestic violence.

    Most studies have relied on the reports of the primary caregiver rather than assessing the child’s response directly.

    Few studies have differentiated between the effects of observing domestic violence and the impact of negotiating multiple transitions and family disruptions that are secondary to leaving an unsafe environment.

    Few assessment tools have been designed specifically to address the impact of witnessing violence.
To date, there are virtually no follow-up, prospective, or longitudinal studies that examine the effects of witnessing violence.

When domestic violence comes to the attention of others, interventions are typically focused on the adults. In the past, law enforcement and other social service agencies have not been equipped to deal with the diverse needs of children exposed to domestic violence (Wolak & Finkelhor, 1998).

According to Wolak and Finkelhor (1998), professionals serving the needs of children exposed to domestic violence should be prepared to provide: (1) crisis intervention (i.e., assess for safety; develop a safety plan; file an abuse report; and provide crisis counseling); (2) assessment (i.e., assess current functioning, suicide risk); (3) short and long-term therapy (i.e., gradual exposure, trauma processing, reduction of feelings of responsibility and self-blame).

Carlson, B.E. (1990). Adolescent observers of marital violence. Journal of Family Violence, 5 (4), 285-299.

Carlson, B.E. (1984). Children’s observations of interparental violence. In A.R. Roberts (Ed.), Battered women and their families (pp. 147-167). New York: Springer. 

Edleson, J.L. (1999). Children’s witnessing of adult domestic violence. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 14 (8), 839-870. 

Ganley, A.L., & Schecter, S. (1996). Domestic violence: A national curriculum for children’s protective services. San Francisco: Family Violence Prevention Fund.

Henning, K., Leitenberg, H., Coffey, P., Turner, T., & Bennett, R.T. (1996). Long-term psychological and social impact of witnessing physical conflict between parents. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 11 (1), 35-51.

Hughes, H.M., Parkinson, D., & Vargo, M. (1989). Witnessing spouse abuse and experiencing physical abuse: A "double whammy?" Journal of Family Violence, 4, 197-209.

Jouriles, E.N., Murphy, C.M., & O’Leary, D. (1989). Interpersonal aggression, marital discord, and child problems. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 57(3), 453-455.

Kolbo, J.R., Blakely, E.H., & Engelman, D. (1996). Children who witness domestic violence: A review of empirical literature. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 11(2), 281-293.  

McKibben, L. DeVos, E., & Newberger, E. (1989). Victimization of mothers of abused children: A controlled study. Pediatrics, 84, 531-535.  

Pfouts, J., Schopler, J., & Henley, H. (1982). Forgotten victims of family violence. Social Work, 367-368.  

Silvern, L., Karyl, J., Waede, L. Hodges, W.F., Starek, J., Heidt, E., & Min, K. (1995). Retrospective reports of parental partner abuse: Relationships to depression, trauma symptoms, and self-esteem among college students. Journal of Family Violence 10(2), 177-202.  

Sonnleitner, M.R., Basil, V.M., & Van Hasselt, V.B. (1999, August). Impact of early exposure to violence on battered women. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, Boston, MA.  

Sternberg, K. J., Lamb, M.E., Greenbaum, C., Cicchetti, D., Dawud, S., Cortes, R.M., Krispin, O., & Lorey, F. (1993). Effects of domestic violence on children’s behavioral problems and depression. Developmental Psychology, 29(1), 44-52.  

Straus, M.A. (1992). Children as witnesses to marital violence: A risk factor for lifelong problems among a nationally representative sample of American men and women. Report of the Twenty-Third Ross Roundtable. Columbus, OH: Ross Laboratories.

Wolak, J. & Finkelhor, D. (1998). Children exposed to partner violence. In J.L. Jasinski & L. Williams (Eds.) Partner Violence: A Comprehensive Review of 20 Years of Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
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