Early Childhood Education

Domestic Violence


Domestic violence can be defined as abuse or threats of abuse between adults in families. However, many researchers include all types of violence that a child witnesses as domestic violence. Children typically witness domestic violence that occurs between partners, and most often abuse involving a male abusing a female (Groves, 2002; Osofsky, 1997, 2004). Other forms of domestic violence include both partners as aggressors when abuse occurs (Smith Slep and O’Leary, 2005). Research also indicates that when domestic violence involves spousal abuse of the mother, the mother frequently will be abusive toward her children. Children also have often been found to be victims of abuse at the hand of a male when the male is the aggressor toward the female.

Domestic violence has become an increasing problem round the globe with 40 percent of women in many countries reporting spousal or intimate partner abuse (Kishor and Johnson, 2004). An estimated three to eight million children witness violence each year. Every year the incidence increases, and the effects can be devastating for young children (Kearney, 1999). Most aggression consists of pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping, and hitting. However, some incidents are life threatening. In 2003, the number of domestic violence incidents that resulted in death in the United States was 1,300 in 2003, and internationally this number is not known due to difficulty in calculating and obtaining data.

Witnessing violence or exposure to violence can have a negative impact on all people, but young children are particularly vulnerable (Osofsky, 1997). Many children bear the brunt of not only witnessing violence between adults but also being the victims of domestic violence and living in communities where violence becomes a part of everyday life (Osofsky, 2004). Exposure comes in many forms that include the media, spousal abuse in homes, and violence in neighborhoods. Eventually, for many children violence comes to be seen as the norm.

As a result of witnessing domestic violence, infants and toddlers may exhibit limited speech. Other behaviors that develop include regression to behaviors that a child had already mastered, new fears, clinginess, and behavior changes. Infants and toddlers may develop problems with sleeping, temper tantrums, and difficulty separating from caregivers. Young children, particularly infants and toddlers, react both to the trauma that they experience and the trauma that the adults they are attached to experience. In situations where spousal abuse is occurring, young children quickly become victims even when they are only witnessing violence and are not the physical recipient. The inability to develop trust and autonomy can be difficult for children who have witnessed domestic violence or are victims. Future relationships with other adults and peers can be impaired due to the inability to trust others.

The effects of trauma associated with domestic violence can impact a child at any age. Trauma-specific symptoms can interfere with normal growth in development. Children, particularly preschoolers who witness violence at a young age, may have a tendency toward violence and impulsivity. A child may be hypervigilent and overly sensitive to sounds or noises. Many of the effects of domestic violence can interfere with the ability to learn and develop. Preschoolers may also experience difficulty separating from caregivers, fearful avoidance reactions, and provocative behavior. Some preschoolers exposed to violence have sleep difficulties and withdraw socially (Osofsky, 2004).

It is difficult to determine what a young child will remember. What is known is that children remember traumatic events better than other events in their lives. They have more difficulty with the sequence of events and their memories may be more fragmented, but the memories are there (Groves, 2000). The effects of the trauma also depend on the extent of the emotional involvement of the child, the level of their language development, and the security that the child has to an attachment caregiver. The length of the violence also plays a role in how detrimental it is to the child (Groves, 2002).

Chronic exposure to violence can lead to intense rage that can lead to aggressive behaviors. Some children become frightened by the violence and develop passive tendencies. Many children exposed to violence have difficulty in the area of academic performance. Many children seem to develop symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in response to witnessing violence. Symptoms that can develop include repetitive traumatic dreams, cognitive confusion, and re-enactment of the traumatic event through play and intrusive memories or thoughts (Groves, 2002).

There are many strategies that teachers and other adults can use to support young children who have been exposed to domestic violence. Children learn from what they see so it is important for teachers and other adults in their lives to model appropriate behaviors. Children who have witnessed or been victims of domestic violence need to learn ways to problem solve difficult situations and handle conflict and anger (Kearney, 1999). These children need consistency and structure for their behavior and logical consequences for not following rules that do not involve physical punishment. Many of these young children have difficulty developing trust in relationships, so they need consistent attention and appropriate affection.

Adults involved with children who have witnessed domestic violence should create an emotionally safe environment for the child. The child’s classroom and home should be a place to which the child feels that he or she can come without anxiety. Cooperation should be encouraged rather than competition. Listening to what the child has to say is one factor that will help to promote trust (Kearney, 1999). Children should also be alerted to changes that will be taking place in the classroom or at home so they know what to expect. Allowing children to complete activities in a variety of ways and letting them know that there is no one way to do something is important to accepting the child and building self-esteem.

Osofsky (1997) argues that teachers should receive specific training on how to deal with children who have been exposed to domestic violence. Preservice teachers should receive college level training, and teachers in the schools should receive in-service training on a regular basis. Training should cover three content areas: development and the effects of domestic violence on children at various ages; resilience and coping in children; and helping teachers focus on their own reactions and experiences with domestic violence.

Teacher training should include exposure to the general development of children and how domestic violence can affect children at each stage of development. Discussions of how children’s development can regress as well as how to talk with parents about sensitive issues should take place with teachers. Teachers should be trained on how to file a report of abuse or neglect and to talk with children about a violent incident. Teachers should also receive information about conflict resolution and mediation skills.

Child resilience is another important component of training for teachers and other staff who work with young children. All children will respond differently to domestic violence, and research on resilience presented during teacher training can facilitate understanding this concept. Some children are able to cope better than others and if teachers have an understanding of this, it can counteract teachers’ feelings of hopelessness (Osofsky, 1997).

The third component of the training should provide teachers with selfawareness concerning their own feelings and reactions to domestic violence. The topic can be emotional and overwhelming, so it is important to allow teachers permission to discuss how they feel with others and seek support from colleagues and supervisors when dealing with domestic violence issues in the classroom (Osofsky, 1997).

Communities that work together to respond to domestic violence by linking services to help victims and families can make a difference on the impact of the violence. Multidisciplinary teams consisting of mental health providers, police, and educators and early childhood educators can contribute to responding early and working with the family as a system rather than as isolated individuals (Osofsky, 2004).

In order to help victims of domestic violence, prevention and intervention are important for reducing the short and long-term effects on young children. Early referral is an important factor and can make a difference in the intervention process in a child’s life. As soon as a child has been exposed to a traumatic event, referral to intervention services can help the child to begin to process information and make sense of feelings. Ensuring that children feel safe is an important element that should be in place before effective interventions can occur (Osofsky, 2004).

Further Readings: Groves, Betsy M. (2002). Children who see too much. Boston: Beacon, Press; Kearney, Margaret (1999). The role of teachers in helping children of domestic violence. Childhood Education 75, 290-296; Kishor, Sunita, and Kiersten Johnson (2004). Profiling domestic violence: A multicountry study. Demographic and health surveys: MEASURE. Available online athttp://www.measuredhs.com; Osofsky, Joy D. (1997). Children in a violent society. New York: Guilford Press; Osofsky, Joy D. (2004). Community outreach for children exposed to violence. Infant Mental Health Journal 25, 478-487; Smith Slep, Amy, and Susan G. O’Leary (2005). Parent and partner violence in families with young children: Rates, patterns, and connections. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 73, 435-444.

Cathy Grist Litty