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Shhhhhh! Behind Closed Doors: The Effect of Domestic Violence on Children

Have you ever wondered what happens to children who have, unfortunately, experienced domestic violence? Or what they might have secretly gone through behind closed doors? Some children, after a long day of school, instead of going back to a secure home have no choice but to witness unimaginable abuse. How do they manage to endure all this pain and suffering? What helps them cope with all the stressors that this abuse brings with it? Is there someone who protects them from all the pain of these traumatic experiences?

As a professional therapist, these are some of the questions that I ask myself whenever I encounter these heartbreaking stories. In my experience, there have been children who revealed their fear and distress, due to the uncertainty of what might happen to them and the parent who suffered the abuse. Some believed that their family would be better off living abroad, to completely escape from the harsh reality of having a parent with violent tendencies. Others expressed a sense of relief when the abusive parent was locked up. On the other hand, many had mixed feelings because they still loved and cared for them. They were even willing to help them become a better person.

Nonetheless, there were children who internalised the abuse. They thought they were to blame for the hardship that they and their parent had endured. There were also scenarios where some children even seriously feared that the victim parent’s life was in danger and that they were going to get murdered.

Sometimes, we are totally unaware of what a child is going through. This is because the child learned how to keep secrets. Thus, what happens at home stays at home. Some children return home every day with a heavy heart because of the chaos and turmoil that awaits them there.

Research shows that there is no uniform response of children experiencing domestic violence. Children’s responses vary, with some children being affected far more than others. Even siblings who belong to the same family can be affected differently. Thus, we need to remember that every child’s experiences and reactions are unique. Therefore, it is of utter importance to determine exactly what that child in particular is experiencing, to gain some understanding of what the possible impact of these experiences might be, rather than thinking reductively in terms of a checklist.

For many children, the impact of living in household with domestic violence is interwoven by whether they are witnessing it or whether they are being directly impacted by it. We cannot overlook the fact that that abuse is not only physical, but it can also be psychological, sexual or/and involve neglect. Factors that influence how children might perceive abuse are age, race, economic status, disability, sexuality and the child’s resilience (Pearson, Harwin & Abrahams, 2006).

Domestic violence can also affect how children perceive their families, due to the disorganisation in family roles which in turn causes the emotional distress of the parents, as well as difficulty in assuming parental roles and protecting the child. Thornton’s (2014) study points out that domestic violence has a simultaneous disruptive impact on relationships and dynamics within the entire family. Children’s representations of the family showed several perceived impacts of domestic violence, including disruption of the care available to children, reduced opportunities for communication and collaboration in decision-making, loyalty conflicts, disrupted routines, and reduced parental ability to ensure the children’s safety.

Observations of interactions in the mother-father-child triad revealed that these families were more disengaged from each other, their interactions were more based on relations of domination to the detriment of the child’s need, and were more likely to express negative emotions toward each other, such as anger, irritability and contempt (Katz & Low 2004). Thus, the parents’ relationships with their child seem to take second place, with the relationship between the parents being dominant. This leads to questioning the child’s psychological adjustment in such contexts.

When looking at the other side of the coin, I become curious and ask myself what helps these children cope with such toxic environments. Resilience is a concept that has been explored for many years in an attempt to develop an understanding of which factors might help promote it in children. According to Rutter, as cited in Pearson, C., Harwin & Abrahams, H. (2006), these protective factors against adversity might include self-esteem, the timing of incidents, the child’s ability to attach meaning to and make sense of events, as well as the child’s relationships with others. Crucial to a child’s resiliency is the presence of a positive, caring, and protective adult in a child’s life. Although a long-term relationship with a caregiver is best, even a brief relationship with one caring adult such as a mentor, coach, teacher, day-care provider or an advocate in a domestic violence shelter, can make an important difference.

So whether it is a parent, teacher, mentor or other significant adults in the child’s life, remember that children need adults to speak out and break the silence. Children who are exposed to violence at home need to know that things can change for the better and that the abuse inside their homes can come to an end. Children need to have hope for the future. In conclusion, do not turn a blind eye and remember that there are services that can support children in need. Let’s help them by understanding that their voice is important and ensure that they are being heard. 


  1. Katz, L. F., & Low, S. M. (2004). Marital violence, co-parenting, and family-level processes in relation to children’s adjustment. Journal of Family Psychology, 18(2), 372–382.
  2. Paul, O. (2019). Perceptions of Family Relationships and Post-Traumatic Stress Symptoms of Children Exposed to Domestic Violence. Journal of Family Violence (2019) 34:331–343.
  3. Pearson, C., Harwin, N & Abrahams, H. (2006). Making an Impact – Children and Domestic Violence. 2nd Edition. ISBN-13: 978-1843101574
  4. Thornton, V. (2014). Understanding the emotional impact of domestic violence on young children. Educational and Child Psychology, 31(1), 90–101
Maria Mifsud

About Maria Mifsud

Maria graduated with a Bachelor of Psychology (Hons) in 2008, then went on to read for a Masters in Probation Services at the University of Malta. After years of being part of the Government workforce, she realised that to better understand her clients and be more equipped, she had to further her studies by enrolling in a Masters in Systemic and Family Psychotherapy with IFT-Malta. Some years later, she continued to pursue her studies in Clinical Supervision with IFT-Malta. Maria is also a qualified Victim Offender Mediator.

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