Children: The Silent Victims of Domestic Violence

CNN/ Newswire | 9/11/2014, 6 a.m.
More than 3 million children witness domestic violence every year, according to estimates.

By Kelly Wallace


Editor's note: Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She is a mom of two girls. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN) -- When a case of domestic violence captures the national headlines like the story of fallen NFL star Ray Rice and his wife, Janay, there's a laser focus on the abuser and the victim.

But what about the children?

Ray and Janay Rice have a 2-year-old daughter.

We don't know if she has ever witnessed domestic violence in her household or ever will. What we do know is more than 3 million children have witnessed it in their homes every year, according to estimates. What those children see and hear can have a profound impact on their lives, experts around the country who deal with domestic violence tell CNN.

"It does have effects. No matter how much you believe it is hidden from them or out of sight, children know what is happening and they worry and they stress," said Katie Ray-Jones, president and chief executive officer of the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Ray-Jones points to research that shows that 90% of children in homes where there is domestic violence know it is going on.

"This means these young people are living with the stress and anxiety of their parents hurting each other verbally and physically and carry that when at school, on the playground or at the dinner table."

That stress and anxiety can lead to sadness, confusion, rage, even guilt, said Linda Esposito, a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker who has treated children exposed to domestic violence.

"Some kids blame themselves ... 'Maybe if I was a better kid or a smarter student, my parents wouldn't fight,' " she said they might say.

Boys exposed to domestic violence may channel their feelings through aggressive acts such as fighting, hitting younger siblings and engaging in high-risk behaviors such as using or abusing drugs or joining gangs, according to Esposito, who hosts a blog on psychotherapy called Talk Therapy Biz.

Girls may act out in aggressive ways, too, by becoming sexually promiscuous or using drugs, while other girls may internalize their pain and become depressed, isolated and even injure themselves, she said.

Of course, some women abuse male partners, too, which can have an equally dire impact on family dynamics.

Children who witness domestic violence are also at greater risk of becoming victims themselves, said Liz Roberts, deputy CEO and chief program officer of the group Safe Horizon, which provides support for victims of domestic violence.

The chance of "co-occurrence," where the abuser is hurting his or her partner and the children at the same time, could be as high as 30% to 60%, according to Safe Horizon.

The impact of witnessing domestic violence isn't just felt in childhood. Research has shown that adverse childhood experiences are directly associated with negative outcomes as adults, such as homelessness, unemployment, poverty and chronic health and mental problems, Roberts said.