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The Impact of Domestic Violence on Children

24-Hour Domestic Violence Hotline: 208.343.7025 24-hour Rape Crisis Hotline: 208.345.7273 (RAPE)
Written by Jaclyn Eisele
iStock_000005466158_LargeKids are seen as incredibly resilient. When they fall down, they bounce back up. When they break a bone, they heal quickly. And when they’re young, we like to believe that they are somehow shielded from the harsh realities of adult problems. Not being able to fully understand the events in their lives however, does not mean that they are unaffected by serious situations such as domestic violence. While we may not always see the damage that violence in the home causes, we can be certain that invisible scars are commonly left behind. Kids exposed to domestic violence, either directly or indirectly, experience abnormally high levels of stress which can have lasting impacts on the developing brain.

As a clinician who uses play therapy, I see these impacts on a daily basis. One of the most striking examples is that of a 4 year old client I once worked with whose parents were going through a very heated divorce. During my first meeting with the child’s mom, she expressed that she wasn’t sure what benefits counseling could have for a 4 year old, but that a relative had recommended she try it out. After several one-on-one sessions, it became clear to me that this 4 year old girl was working through some complex issues.

Each week, she came into my office and played out the same scene. It started with Mom and Dad putting the kids to bed, going downstairs, and beginning to fight. The fights were loud, aggressive, and extremely violent. Suddenly, a dinosaur would appear mid-fight and destroy everything in the house until Mom and Dad were able to work together to find a way to make the dinosaur happy. Although my client never specifically told me what was going on in her life, her play gave me a clear window into the ways that domestic violence was impacting her. She was constantly living in a state of stress, fear, and worry, even though her parents may have thought she was shielded from the reality of their situation. She didn’t have the language to express her side of the story, but each night as she lay in bed, she soaked up the tension that surrounded her.*

We often hear the brains of young children compared to sponges. The same “sponginess” that allows children to be so resilient and to learn new skills quickly is also responsible for absorbing the stress and trauma that occurs with domestic violence. This is why exposure to domestic violence from an early age can have profound impacts on the development of a child. Fortunately, with early intervention with evidence based therapy, kids have the opportunity to access and play through their traumatic memories so that healing can occur.

*Specific details of this story have been changed in order to protect confidentiality.

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