Child Development and Domestic Violence
All children are individuals and develop at different stages. However, to be able to clearly identify what behaviours are normal and what may have arisen from experiencing domestic violence, it is important that we have a clear understanding of child development.
- Infants and toddlers (0-4 years)
- Pre-schoolers (3-5 years)
- School age (6-12 years)
- Adolescents (13 years and over)
In addition to the physical danger of violence for infants (0-2 years) and toddlers (3-4 years), they are seen as most vulnerable because they are physically and emotionally totally dependent on their caregivers. From birth to age 2, babies grow and change rapidly and absorb information from their world through all five senses. This is a crucial stage of development, as they form secure attachments and build emotional bonds with a caregiver, become more active explorers of their world through play, and learn about social interaction and relationships from everything they see and hear within their family. They may attach inappropriately to strangers who show them attention.
Generally, pre-schoolers (approximately 3-5 years depending on developmental stage) interpret most events in relation to self and consider that everything revolves around them. If they experience violence at home, they do not have the cognitive ability to see the situation in its broader context and may perceive themselves as the cause of the violence around them. For example, they might think that not picking up their toys is the reason for an argument between their parents.
Children this age might also intervene without realising the potential consequences, unaware that they may be injured themselves. Pre-schoolers don’t have the maturity to understand complex situations and motives and they might see unrelated events as linked. This way of information processing may lead to inaccurate perceptions that increase worries and anxiety. They may also quickly make inappropriate attachments to other adults without first getting to know and trust them.
Children of this age group have developed an increased emotional awareness of themselves and others, meaning they are able to think in more complex ways about right and wrong as well as cause and effect. They are starting to understand the perspectives and feelings of others, so they can recognise how an abusive pattern of behaviour affects their mothers.
Children in this age group also learn to present their fears in many ways, including behaviourally and emotionally. They have the ability to anticipate and be concerned about things, including their mother’s safety, health and emotional wellbeing. School-aged children start to form their gender identity as they are learning what it means to be male and female in society. However, in homes where their mother is abused, children might receive distorted messages, believing that men are in charge and that the family must focus on meeting their needs. They may believe that abusive behaviour is normal and that’s how boys treat girls.
Adolescents who experience domestic violence may have a broader range of coping strategies and be able to view problems from multiple perspectives. When children reach adolescence they develop an increased sense of self and become more independent of their family. They are bigger and stronger and are therefore able to intervene in the perpetrator’s physical violence, and may feel guilty if they don’t do so. They may be more emotionally able to confront the abuser, have learned wider social views against violence, and may be more articulate. They are able to understand and see the context of control and power in the perpetrator’s behaviour and have a sense of perspective that enables them to see violence as their family’s problem and not theirs. They may also learn to use manipulation or abuse to get what they want, use threats to get money or clothes, items etc.
Experiencing violence at home at an adolescent age can affect children’s/young people’s self-esteem, cause suicidal feelings and difficulties in trusting others. This inability to trust others can lead to major problems, as it impacts on the ability to form relationships, both friendships and dating relationships, and can affect their functioning in education or work environments.
Sometimes young people can take on a caregiver role for their younger siblings or even their mother, which might give them some sense of control. Other coping strategies for teenagers may include leaving home, using drugs/alcohol, and seeking intimate relationships for escape. Some adopt strategies which lead to problems outside the home such as delinquency, substance abuse or homelessness. All these can have life-changing consequences for young people.