Picking Up the Pieces: Working with Children Exposed to Family Violence

By Isadora Burnham and Violina Lilova

Shattered Glass
Flickr [Px4u by Team Cu29, September 1, 2013, CC BY-ND]
Little ears and little eyes.  When whispering turns into shouting, who hears it?  When yelling turns into shoving, who sees it?  Couples often do not realize the impact their actions and words may have on their children.  Witnessing a traumatic event can hugely impact a child. Little and Bogel (1998) noted that “witnessing” can have such a large impact on a person that the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM) diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was amended in 1987 to include it [2].  However, when Initmate Partner Violence (IPV) is occurring in the home, “witnessing” does not correctly encompass the full experience of the child.  Children “exposed” to IPV in the home witness, intervene, and are used as property to continue a pattern of abuse between parents [1].

When treating victims of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), why is it relevant to consider the children exposed to IPV when they have not been abused as well? As service professionals, we tend to focus on the victim of IPV and may disregard the children in the home as potential victims, themselves. Thus, we would like to focus on the effects children may obtain when exposed to IPV.  Effects may include: fear, depression, anxiety, PTSD, loneliness, lowered self-worth, self-blame, lowered verbal intellectual functioning, lowered reading ability, and many more [1].  Some of these effects align similarly to the effects experienced by the actual victims of IPV, which provides evidence for the significant impact children exposed to IPV experience. So, is it important to inquire about the amount of exposure to IPV a child has experienced?  Absolutely. Multiple family types may experience IPV in the home, including military families.  Soldiers who serve in the military and do tours overseas may have experienced or were exposed to traumatic events. Some may even experience second-hand trauma.  Thus, when returning to the US and their families, some soldiers may find it difficult to disable the effects of the traumatic experiences from spilling over into other aspects of their lives.  If one continuously relives those experiences, then those around them may experience a form of second-hand trauma themselves.  Hence, it is important to consider the traumatic military experience and the trauma one may inflict on others as a result of that experience.  If a child were to experience some form of second-hand trauma based on the parent’s military experience along with exposure to IPV between parents, the effects might be likely to increase.  Thus, children in military families may be considered at greater risk of obtaining negative effects from exposure to IPV and related second-hand traumatic experiences.  According to Little and Bogel (1998), children exposed to IPV in the home are also likely to become victims of violence [2].

Little and Bogel (1998) state that witnessing IPV occurring in the home should be considered a form of psychological child abuse [2].  As time and research progressed, the impact of IPV on children became more prevalent, and policies were adopted to recognize this as a form of psychological child abuse [1].  While the legal system does recognize this, there will always be discrepancies in what is truly considered child abuse. Thus, there will be instances where the impacts of IPV on the children in the home go unnoticed, and children go untreated. Hence, when working with families experiencing IPV in the home, the effects on children should never be overlooked.  Moylan et al. (2010) found that 3.3 to 10 million children are exposed to IPV in the home every year, which indicates the relevance of being aware of the impact IPV may have on children when exposed [3].  There is a strong indicator that children exposed to IPV in the home may also become victims of abuse [3].  The effects children may experience as a result of exposure are copious and subject to vary per child.  Although our focus was not on gender differences, research has found a difference in the impacts of exposure to IPV based on gender [3].

When working with families experiencing IPV in the home, it is important for service professionals to inquire about the family structure and dynamics. It is also important to attend to the potential second-hand trauma the children in the home could experience without making therapy solely about the children and not the victim. Service professionals should communicate with clients about the effects children in the home may experience from IPV and some common signs and symptoms among this population of children.  It may be helpful for the service professionals to mention the child’s presence during an altercation for the client to become aware of the events witnessed by the child.  As service professionals, we must be mindful of how we language terms and phrases when dealing with children who have experienced second-hand trauma to refrain from encouraging a child to relive a traumatic event. We must be aware of the fact that children have less of a choice and voice to violence occurring in their homes than do victims. Put simply, children are forced to live with IPV [1].  Service professionals, including mental health clinicians, are mandated reporters of child abuse. Laws may vary from state to state regarding reporting child abuse solely based on exposure to IPV in the home [1]. Thus, it is important to be familiar with the laws of your state.

Resources for clinicians:
  • For more research findings on the effects children experience when exposed to IPV in the home, click here.
  • For information to provide to a parent who is curious about the ways IPV in their relationship may impact their children, click here.
  • For a short video to provide insight as to what life looks like for child exposed to IPV, click here. Another video about a family experiencing IPV in the home can be found, here.



[1] Goddard, C. & Bedi, G. (2010). Intimate partner violence and child abuse: A child-centred perspective. Child Abuse Review, 19(1), 5-20.

[2] Little, P. L. & Bogel, C. M. (1998). The effects of spousal abuse on children: Awareness for correctional educators. Journal of Correctional Education, 49(1), 30-39.

[3] Moylan, C., Herrenkohl, T., Sousa, C., Tajima, E., Herrenkohl, R., & Russo, M. (2010). The effects of child abuse and exposure to domestic violence on adolescent internalizing and externalizing behavior problems. Journal of Family Violence, 25(1), 53-63. doi:10.1007/s10896-009-9269-9

This post was written by Isadora Burnham and Violina Lilova, guest bloggers for the OneOp Family Development (FD) team which aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Isadora and Violina are masters-level marriage and family therapist (MFT) in training enrolled in the Marriage and Family Therapy Department at Valdosta State University. They also work as MFT interns at VSU’s FamilyWorks Clinic, a community-based family therapy clinic. You may find more about the authors, here. Find out more about OneOp FD team on our website, on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and on LinkedIn.

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