Childrens Reactions to Witnessing Domestic Violence

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Children whose mothers have been physically and emotionally abused are considered victims of family violence. We know from research studies that individual children respond differently to the violence, from those who evidence major psychological disorders and posttraumatic stress symptoms, to those who appear resilient and unaffected by the trauma. Approximately 40 to 60% of children who witness the abuse of their mothers are above the clinical cutoff level on measures of mood and behaviors. That is, they are in need of clinical treatment for their anxiety, depression, and aggressive behavior. In one study, more than half of the children who witnessed domestic violence had symptoms of posttraumatic stress, and 13% qualified for a full Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) diagnosis—the diagnosis first given to returning combat veterans who showed extreme stress reactions to the atrocities witnessed during war.

Most children who observe violence in the family are worried and concerned about the behavior of their father and the welfare of their mother relative to children who have not observed such violence. Many of these children feel anxious because they harbor a ter rible family secret—one that they often are unable to share with friends. In this instance, they may avoid or withdraw from social contacts. Other children may behave aggressively with peers and find themselves rejected by others, socially neglected, or avoided. Without some intervention, these lessons and reactions can interfere with a child's social and emotional development. Yet there is often little opportunity for children to discuss their perceptions, worries, and fears, or to get new information.

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