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Understanding Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is, unfortunately, a far too common occurrence in our society. Many children in care and who move on to adoptive homes have faced domestic violence in their young lives. A lot of people don’t realize how common domestic violence is, because survivors often keep quiet about their experiences (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2017). It can happen to anyone -- people of all cultures, regions, ethnic groups, religions, socioeconomic groups and education levels are affected. A number of children who are placed for adoption have been exposed to domestic violence. In Canada, 3,491 women and their 2,724 children sleep in shelters each night because they are not safe at home (http://www.canadianwomen.org/facts-about-violence).  Of course, these numbers do not account for all instances of domestic violence, since many victims are still at home. A report released in 2016 indicated that nearly 760,000 Canadians said they had experienced “unhealthy spousal conflict, abuse or violence in the previous five years” (Kohut, 2016). Furthermore, approximately every six days, a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner and of the intimate partner homicides reported to police in 2014, 80% of victims were women. (Canadian Women’s Foundation, 2017).

Even though women are statistically the most common victims at the hands of their male partners, domestic violence can also impact people in same-sex relationships or can entail a woman perpetrating against a man. In addition, domestic violence equally affects people who are married, living together or dating. It’s important to note that domestic violence can happen even if the couple does not have a sexual relationship (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2017).

But what about children who have been exposed to domestic violence? How can witnessing domestic violence affect children, and what should prospective adoptive parents and adoptive parents know about this? How can adoptive parents and their village of support help children who were exposed to domestic violence prior to placement? Sometimes, you will already be aware that your children have experienced domestic violence. Maybe you learned about it from your child’s social worker before your child joined your family, or perhaps your children have shared their experiences with you. But maybe you weren’t aware of this aspect in your child’s history, as it possible that it did not come to the attention of child welfare or other professionals. 

What is Domestic Violence?

When the words “domestic violence” are mentioned, often images of physical violence appear in people’s minds. Of course, the aggressive acts of physical abuse, such as hitting, shoving, slapping and beating, are one aspect of domestic violence. But there are many forms of domestic violence. Domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence (IPV), is a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over their intimate partner. Domestic violence can be physical, sexual, economic, emotional (such as demeaning remarks or insults) or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2017).

Some people may wonder why people stay in relationships where domestic violence is present, but it can be incredibly challenging for a survivor of domestic violence to leave an abusive relationship, including the parents of many children who end up in foster care. There are several factors that can contribute to survivors remaining in abusive situations.  Sometimes, women feel trapped because they are financially dependent on their partner, placing them in a position where they are stuck between either remaining in an abusive relationship or living in poverty and having nowhere to live (Canadian Women’s Foundation, 2017). Other factors can be because they are struggling with low self-esteem, or are afraid for their safety if they leave (Libuku et al., 2008).

Leaving a violent relationship can become even more complicated and difficult when children are involved. For example, mothers who are experiencing domestic violence may think it will be better for their children if they stay in the relationship (Libuku et al., 2008).  Statistics indicate that women who leave their partner to become a single parent are five times more likely to enter poverty than if they had remained in the relationship (ibid). Other women remain due to their strong beliefs about keeping their family together (ibid) or believe that it is best for their child (Menezes Cooper, 2013), or for their child to grow up with two parents. Sometimes, women face pressure from their friends or family who may minimize the violence or blame the woman for it (ibid).  Furthermore, the impact of domestic violence on a woman’s mental health can make it incredibly difficult for her to leave a relationship. For example, sixty-four percent of women who have experienced intimate partner violence show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (ibid). Since a woman’s self-confidence can be destroyed as a result of long-term abuse, it can be even more difficult for her to feel worthy enough to deserve better treatment or that she is strong enough to manage on her own (Canadian Women’s Foundation, 2017).

Since the perpetrator of domestic violence often expresses their “deep remorse”, promising to change, it can take years for a survivor to recognize that the violence will not stop (ibid).  Some survivors of domestic violence grew up in homes with similar violence, so women may not believe that it is possible to have a relationship that isn’t coloured by domestic violence. Of course, any combination of these factors can influence a woman to stay in a relationship marked with domestic violence.

Pregnancy when domestic violence is present can bring even more difficulties. For example, women who experience abuse during pregnancy have shown higher levels of anxiety, depression and emotional stress (Pires de Almeida, C., Sá, E., Cunha, F., & Pires, E. P. , 2013). In addition to the danger faced by the pregnant mother, an unborn child exposed to domestic violence is at risk of being miscarried, born prematurely, under-weight or under-developed (Libuku et al., 2008). Prenatal domestic violence has an impact on the important time when mothers are beginning to form a relationship with the child they are carrying. When experiencing intimate partner violence, a mother is more likely to have a hard time empathizing with her baby, and feel more insecure, so she can struggle to provide her baby with a secure base (Huth-Bocks, Theron, Levendosky, & Bogat, 2011). This has been shown to raise the risk of the baby or child experiencing neglect or emotional and physical abuse (English, Marshall, & Stewart, 2003).  Furthermore, there has been a link found between pregnant women who have experience domestic abuse and their children experiencing emotional and behavioural trauma symptoms in their first year of life. These include startling easily, nightmares, being bothered by loud noises and bright lights, having trouble experiencing enjoyment and avoiding physical contact (Lannert et al., 2014). It is clear that exposure to domestic violence has impacts upon children even before they are born.

Domestic violence and children

We’ve talked about the impact upon children in utero, but what about children who witness or live in a home where there is domestic violence? A review of twenty years of research shows that domestic violence is an important indicator of risk of harm to children (Hester et al, 2007). That is, the risk to children exposed to domestic violence is high. First of all, the perpetrator of domestic violence may also be directly abusive to the child. In fact, research also shows that domestic violence is the most common context in which child abuse happens (ibid). Of course, witnessing violence to their parent may have an “abusive and detrimental impact on the child” (ibid). “Witnessing” domestic violence does not actually mean that the child must be present in the room and see the violence with their own eyes. Children can witness domestic violence in several different ways, such as overhearing physical abuse, overhearing emotional abuse in the form of demeaning words and comments, or the crying and screaming of their parent receiving the abuse (ibid).

In addition, research shows that children remember domestic violence, even if their parent did not realize the child knew about it (ibid). Even children who are very young are aware of domestic violence happening around them and can experience the harmful affects, even though they cannot necessarily make sense of it at the time (ibid). Similarly, abuse that happens when the children aren’t around can still have negative impacts upon them, since it affects their abused parent. The abuse or violence has such overwhelming impacts on the victim and thus stops her from being the parent she wants to be (Cory and McAndless-Davis, 2013).

Potential Impacts of Domestic Violence on Children

The negative impacts of domestic violence can show up in myriad ways.  In fact, two decades of research shows that “children who have witnessed domestic violence are at increased risk for maladaptation” (Hester et al., 2007). While living in the home or when actively exposed to domestic violence, children can of course suffer physical injuries themselves, including bruises and broken bones (Hester et al., 2007). Children can also become very protective of their abused parent and/or siblings, attempting to intervene or at least feeling the responsibility to do so. In a similar way, children can also feel responsible to protect their abused parent or even the perpetrator (ibid).

Being exposed to domestic violence can bring many emotional challenges to children and youth (Wolfe et al, 2003). For example, they may show some aggression or anger towards their victimized parent or other people, such as other authority figures or siblings, emulating the behaviour of the perpetrator of violence. Children may also feel guilty and as if they are to blame, or feel secretive and unable to tell anyone about what they are experiencing (ibid). Other impacts and emotional states may include withdrawal, self-blame and bitterness, fear, insecurity and tension, emotional confusion in regards to their parents, sadness, depression and social isolation. Low self-esteem or poor social skills may also result. Some children may demonstrate strengths, such as having highly developed social skills or the ability to negotiate difficult situations (ibid).

Of course, domestic violence can affect children of different ages and developmental stages in different ways. For example, toddlers and preschool children are more likely to have their anxiety show up in physical symptoms, like in the form of stomachaches, bedwetting and other disturbances in sleep (Hester et al., 2007). School-age children, meanwhile, may indicate their distress in broader ways, both behaviourally and emotionally (ibid), including in ways discussed in the paragraph above.  A history of domestic violence can also impact children and youth’s attainment in school, since they are less able to focus on learning and listening in the classroom if they are feeling stressed worried (Byrne and Taylor, 2007). Some children may be triggered in the school environment if teasing and putdowns occur, as this may trigger their experience of emotional abuse. At the same time, some children absolutely excel in school and aim to behave extremely well so as to avoid any negative consequences they might anticipate if they “get in trouble” (Cory and McAndless-Davis, 2013). Adolescents might use coping strategies to relieve their difficult feelings, such as by using drugs or alcohol, engaging in self-harm, or through relationships, which could include early marriage or pregnancy (ibid).

Protective Factors and Resilience

But, youth may also call upon positive, healthy coping strategies, such as focusing on their strengths, getting involved in sports or other hobbies and activities or turning to their friends or trusted adults for support (Riebschleger et al., 2015). Importantly, when youth are able to use coping strategies to successfully lower the stress that has stemmed from traumatic events such as domestic violence, they are more likely to overcome the trauma and move forward in their development (Riebschleger et al., 2015). Another safeguard for an older child or youth who has experienced domestic violence is their ability to protect themselves both physically and emotionally at the time of the violence, and also their ability to make sense of what happened (Hester et al., 2007). In addition, children and youth who receive therapeutic support and the care of nurturing adoptive parents will be bolstered in their ability to heal and thrive. As Cory and McAndless-Davis said so eloquently in their book, When Love Hurts: A Woman’s Guide to Understanding Abuse in Relationships, “The seriousness of the abuse cannot be judged by the type of abuse you are experiencing, but rather by the impact it is having on you” (2013). Children and youth can be incredibly resilient, especially when they are provided with the support and services they need.

How to Help: Tools and Techniques

In addition to finding a therapist with knowledge and expertise in loss, trauma, and/or adoption to help support you and your children with their history of trauma and domestic violence, there are many tools that you can use in your day-to-day life. First, it’s helpful to learn and understand what situations or factors might act as a trigger for your child. It’s important to be attuned to your child’s triggers when they happen and how to help equip your child with the ability to cope with it. For example, be alert to your child’s reaction when they hear raised voices or an adult conflict. Pay attention to their beliefs about relationships and about men and women. Along the same lines, it’s important to be alert to behavior or signs from your children that might give you clues about what they might think or believe.  That is, what is your child teaching you through their behavior about what they have internalized?

Children learn a great deal through observation and from modelling from adults.  Additionally, children need to taught about abusive and, on the other hand, respectful behavior.  As Cory and McAndless-Davis helpfully explain,

“Talk about behavior you see in the mall or on television. If some behavior is abusive, call it that. If you experience kind and respectful behavior, comment on it. Talk about all the different kinds of abuse. Be sure that your children know about verbal and emotional abuse and not just physical abuse.” (p. 74).

Thus, it’s crucial to talk about and model healthy relationships. Be aware of how you respond to various situations, since your children are always watching. This does not mean that you have to be the perfect parent; if you did or said something that you regret, it is healing and important to acknowledge your mistake to your child, and talk about what would have been a better response. In the same vein, if you have personally experienced domestic violence in your own life, it’s important to reflect upon how your child’s history and responses may be triggering yours. It may be timely to access your own support.

Children and youth need to be equipped with tools to express their feelings, so that they don’t have to show us how they feel through the negative behaviours, which have previously been discussed here. That is, it is imperative to help your child in skill-building to respond to any triggers or difficult emotions. We can help them do this by teaching them strategies to call upon, such as taking deep breaths, by getting them moving or using their words to express themselves. Activities such as walks or jumping on a trampoline have been shown to help children and youth release the stress inside their bodies and instead replace it with endorphins.

When given the right support and tools, children and youth are strong and resilient, and hope can abound. As Cory and McAndless hopefully write:

“Remember that people who were raised in abusive homes can choose to live in a different way as adults. If you give your children the vocabulary they need for understanding abuse and its effects on others, you will help them to choose to live free of abuse” (p. 74).

You can find a list of professionals who have completed the Adoption Council of Ontario’s eight-day comprehensive training program, ACT: an Adoption and Permanency Curriculum for Child Welfare and Mental Health Professionals, here.

Content References

Byrne, D., & Taylor, B. (2007). Children at risk from domestic violence and their educational attainment: Perspectives of education welfare officers, social workers and teachers. Child Care In Practice, 13(3), 185-201.

Cory, J., & McAndless-Davis, K. (2013). When love hurts: A woman’s guide to understanding abuse in relationships (2nd ed.). New Westminster, BC: WomanKind Press.

Domestic violence and the child welfare system. (2014, October). In Child Welfare Information Gateway. Retrieved from https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/domestic-violence.pdf#page=1&view=Introduction

Hester, M., Pearson, C., Harwin, N., & Abrahams, H. (2007). Making an Impact: Children and Domestic Violence – A Reader (2nd ed.). London And Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Kohut, T. (2016, October 21). Canada’s family violence rates are staggering, says new report. In Global News. Retrieved from http://globalnews.ca/news/3018215/canadas-family-violence-rates-are-staggering-says-new-report/

Lannert, B. K., Garcia, A. M., Smagur, K. E., Yalch, M. M., Levendosky, A. M., Bogat, G. A., & Lonstein, J. S. (2014, December 1). Relational trauma in the context of intimate partner violence. Child Abuse & Neglect, 38(12), 1966-1975.

Litrownik, A. J., Newton, R., Mitchell, B. E., & Richardson, K. K. (2003, February). Long-term follow-up of young children placed in foster care: Subsequent placements and exposure to family violence. Journal of Family Violence, 18(1), 19-28.

Menezes Cooper, T. (2013). Domestic violence and pregnancy: A literature review. International Journal of Childbirth Educatioin, 28(3), 30-33.

Pires de Almeida, C., Sá, E., Cunha, F., & Pires, E. P. (2013). Violence during pregnancy and its effects on mother–baby relationship during pregnancy. Journal Of Reproductive & Infant Psychology, 31(4), 370-380.

Riebschleger, J., Day, A., & Damashek, A. (2015). Foster care youth share stories of trauma before, during, and after placement: Youth voices for building trauma-informed systems of care. Journal Of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 24(4), 339-360.

The facts about violence against women. (n.d.). In Canadian Women's Foundation. Retrieved April 19, 2017, from http://www.canadianwomen.org/facts-about-violence

What is domestic violence? (2008). In Domestic Violence Roundtable. Retrieved from http://www.domesticviolenceroundtable.org/domestic-violence.html

Wolfe, D. A., Crooks, C. V., & Lee, V. (2003, September). The effects of children's exposure to domestic violence: A meta-analysis and critique. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 6(3), 171-187.