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.

"Those adverse childhood experiences can include other things, but witnessing domestic violence is a big one, and the more negative experiences you have as a child, the greater risks of those negative outcomes as an adult," she said.

Giving children the best chance for success is a key reason why we need to raise awareness about the impact of domestic violence, experts say, but so is the connection between witnessing domestic violence and becoming an abuser or victim.

"Domestic violence ... is learned behavior, and so we know that one of the reasons that it persists generation after generation is that people learn in their families as children that it is OK," said Roberts, a former therapist who worked with children exposed to violence.

Men who witness violence in childhood are twice as likely to be violent with their partner and also are at risk of abusing their children, said Ray-Jones of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which has a project called aimed at protecting teens and young adults from abuse.

"For boys, there may be identification with the abuser. They may come to believe that's what masculinity looks like. That's what it is," said Roberts of the domestic violence agency Safe Horizon.

"And for girls, it's complicated because of course you identify with your mother. It's difficult to form an identity about yourself that includes a sense that you don't deserve to be treated that way."

Focusing on children, said Esposito, the California psychotherapist, may be our only hope to "end, or at least, ameliorate domestic violence."

"No one is born abusive, and all bullies start out as victims. Children do not have the life experience, or the intellectual and emotional capacities to comprehend why dad beats mom, or vice versa," she said.

Often it is the impact on the children that pushes an abuse victim ultimately to leave the abuser.

"They may put up with abuse believing that it's most important for their child to be raised by both their parents ... and then at some point when the child is affected or is at risk or is harmed that can be a breaking point for many survivors where they say it's one thing for me to go through this, but I'm not going to have my child go through this," Roberts said.

"Children have one shot at childhood," Esposito said. "To quote a beleaguered NFL commissioner: 'We could do better.' If there's a silver lining in this tragic story, it's that maybe now we will."

If you or someone you love is a victim of domestic violence, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or Safe Horizon's hotline at 800-621-4673.

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