The Effects of Witnessing Domestic Violence by Dr. Sebastian Espinola
Early childhood is known as a crucial time for children. Young children from infancy to school age continue to develop physically, but they also develop mentally and socially. A child’s brain begins to fully develop and any disruption in this process may have long-term and future implications; attachment also begins in early childhood. The way we relate and connect to other people shape the neural connections from which the mind emerges. There have been animal studies that have shown, that when the mother is absent for brief periods, it results in strong effects on the ability to cope with future stressful events. Emotion may be the main means by which these attachment experiences between parent and child shape the developing mind.
Witnessing domestic violence as a child puts them at risk for psychological and behavioral difficulties. However, more research is indicating that the younger the age that the child is being exposed to domestic violence, the more negative the effect will have on the child’s developing brain. Moreover, multiple risks factors may cause significant difficulties for a child’s developing brain. These risk factors are something that increases the chances that that child will have psychological problems. Recent research has identified six family characteristics that proved to be related to poor development in children. These included severe marital problems, low socioeconomic levels, overcrowded or large family size, a father who engages in criminal activity, a mother with psychological issues and the removal of the child from the home. Interestingly enough, research has also shown that societal effects on race contribute far less to children’s behavioral problems and adjustment, than socioeconomic status. The setting in which children are raised, will have a profound effect on overall adjustment and ability to cope with everyday stressors.
The developing brain in a young child is critical, and having too many stressors or trauma, has been researched to show that it disrupts a child’s growth. Having little money, or struggling financially, is a huge risk factor for a violent home. A child who is witness to the financial burdens of the family is affected developmentally. Additionally, domestic violence and homelessness is associated with poor functioning on school-based tasks. Children who live in homes where domestic violence is occurring will experience more acting-out behaviors, emotional difficulties and overall problems, such as temper tantrums and illnesses. The idea, although not fully researched, is that the mother-child relationship or father-child relationship are the main factors that may help or hinder the impact of domestic violence on a child’s functioning.
Grandmothers have been shown to play a critical role in raising the children, especially if both parents are working outside of the home. I strongly believe that having at least one consistent, positive figure in your life, whether it be an aunt or grandmother, may actually serve as a barrier for psychological problems; research has also found this. Children who do not have a positive and consistent figure that serves as a “template” will learn through their parents’ unhealthy ways to be in a relationship. Therefore, the first several years of life are important for the development of the brain and learning how to relate to others. Without those close figures to teach young children healthy ways of relating, it may leave their future marked by a host of psychological and behavioral difficulties.
If you, or someone you know, are having difficulties due to domestic violence, please contact your nearest agency for help. There are a host of resources available in your community.