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Trauma-informed and responsive care for children who have witnessed domestic violence

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, a time to understand the prevalence of domestic violence in our communities and take action to reduce its harmful effects on victims, including children who are often witnesses to its ferocity.

On average, 20 people are physically abused by intimate partners every minute, according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, with millions of children exposed to domestic violence every year, no matter their family’s socio-economic status, nationality or religion. As witnesses, children can experience trauma that can negatively impact their emotional wellbeing, social and academic experiences and, potentially, the course of their lives.

The Center on Child Wellbeing & Trauma offers guidance to adults working with children and youth on how to offer trauma-informed and responsive (TIR) care in all aspects of their day-to-day practices, including helping professionals address the effects of domestic violence on children and families.

How does witnessing domestic violence affect children? 

Fear and anxiety form the emotional undercurrent for children living in homes marked by domestic violence. They remain on edge as they anticipate the next abusive event, and depending on their age, may respond in the following ways:

Preschool children may revert to bed-wetting, thumb-sucking and whining, have trouble sleeping, and experience separation anxiety.

Pre-teens in school may develop poor self-esteem, as they might feel guilty and blame themselves for the abuse. As a result, they can withdraw from activities, lose friends, get into trouble, and see their grades go down. Physically, they may have more headaches and stomach problems.

Teens may react to the abuse they witness by skipping school altogether and taking more risks, such as using drugs or alcohol or engaging in unprotected sex. Male teenagers can get in trouble with the law, while teen girls can become more withdrawn and experience depression.

What are some of the long-term consequences for a child witnessing domestic violence?

Many children who witness domestic violence continue to experience it in some form as adults – either as victims or perpetrators. These children also tend to experience physical and behavioral health problems as adults, such as depression, anxiety, diabetes, and heart disease.

By implementing TIR practices, individuals and organizations working with children, youth, and families have a unique opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of witnesses of domestic violence.  

How can organizations become trauma-informed and responsive (TIR)?

The Massachusetts Childhood Trauma Task Force, which is chaired by the state Office of the Child Advocate, developed a Framework for Trauma-Informed and Responsive Organizations in 2020. This guide is meant to help child-serving individuals and organizations better understand the numerous opportunities to foster healing and avoid amplifying traumatic stress, like that experienced by children who witness domestic violence. The Framework includes:

Future blogs will examine each principle and action step in more depth. In the meantime, the Center on Child Wellbeing & Trauma offers information on trauma and healing and prevention strategies, as well as resources and training as part of its commitment to helping individuals and organizations support children. Please contact our center with questions or comments.