How developmental trauma affects adults exposed to domestic violence in childhood

How developmental trauma effects adults exposed to domestic violence in childhood

Domestic violence (DV) is one of the most common causes of Adverse Childhood Experiences alongside instances of physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

The long-term impact of growing up in an environment fueled by physical abuse frequently stumps an individual’s developmental growth, and this includes mental health and brain development.

Childhood exposure

Although instances of domestic violence rarely get directed at a child, witnessing domestic violence, particularly between caregivers, is an incredibly traumatic experience for children and often induces a myriad of future health consequences.

What is domestic violence?

Domestic violence takes on many forms, such as:

  • Yelling
  • Controlling behaviours
  • Chronic arguing
  • Threats of murder or suicide
  • Threats involving weapons like knives or guns
  • Serious injuries
  • Physical abuse

Intimate partner violence

Domestic violence almost always has a cataclysmic undertone of power and control, with the abusers constantly striving to attain these qualities from their victims.

Any behavioural patterns that demonstrate coercive control, particularly in intimate partnerships, can be a red flag or forewarning of domestic abuse.


Statistics from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have shown that in cases where children do not get physically assaulted, they still witness up to 68% to 80% of physical abuse.

Additional statistics reported that in home environments where domestic violence between partners is rife, there is a 45% to 60% likelihood of co-occurring child abuse.

These figures alone illustrate the devastating impact of domestic violence on children’s emotional well-being and psychological development.

Risk factors

Domestic violence’s impact on caregivers often leaves them emotionally unavailable and unresponsive to a child’s needs, all of which trigger a deep-seated fear within children, which gets followed by a panoply of raw, intricate emotions that often remain unresolved.

Long-term effects

Psychiatrist Daniel Siegel describes the damaging impact that domestic violence has on a child’s brain development. 

Siegel explains how the mind develops as the brain responds to ongoing experience. It is the firing of neurons that give rise to emotion, attention, and memory.

‘What fires together, explains Siegel, ”in a combination of violent exposures and the child’s underlying neurobiological experience -wires together.’’

Mental health consequences

Exposure to domestic violence can cause psychological, physiological and emotional problems, mainly as a child develops into adolescence and adulthood. Health outcomes for those with a history of witnessed domestic violence in early life are harrowing.

The severity of emotional repercussions largely depends on other variables such as the severity of abuse witnessed, co-occurring childhood abuse and whether the child had a stable adult figure.


The psychological and emotional implications in adults of children with histories of witnessed domestic violence involve:

  • Fear of abandonment or being harmed
  • Guilt
  • Excessive sadness and worry
  • Habitual lying
  • Emotional distancing
  • Lacking in judgement
  • Shame and fear, particularly when thinking about the future
  • Incapable of experiencing empathy or guilt
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Unsatisfactory or negative relationships
Family violence forever taints

Family violence forever taints

When a child gets exposed to domestic violence or abuse, it can have a detrimental impact on their physical health and emotional well-being, particularly later in life.

Traumatic stress

The many variables that feature during an episode of domestic violence get imprinted into a child’s mind, such as what they see during the attack, what they hear and how these traumatic events make them feel.

Exposure to physical violence causes profound traumatic stress in children and, at their best, these stressful memories forever taint. 

At the same time, at their worst, every experience gets filtered under the lens of these problematic memories, all of which impact an individual’s feelings, emotions, outlook on life and relationship choices.

Domestic violence impacts every aspect of children’s lives. Children that witness domestic violence are not just innocent observers; they are victims.

Intimate partner violence

Studies show that in Ontario, Canada, intimate partner violence was more prevalent than in other Canadian provincial states, with 24 293 reported domestic violence cases against women and 5,892 reported cases of domestic violence against men.

Future health problems

Research shows the many poor health problems, particularly when it comes to mental health, all of which are prevalent in domestic violence victims of all age groups.

The typical health outcomes for victims of witnessed domestic violence include:

Adverse Childhood Experiences

Domestic violence gets recognized as an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), which is found to have a detrimental impact on mental health throughout a lifespan.

Young people who witness domestic violence or experience domestic abuse often experience behavioural challenges compared to their peers; they also engage in risk-taking behaviours, which can leave them open to exploitation and other forms of abuse.

Early intervention

Studies show that children of domestic abuse are likely to experience adverse outcomes during all stages of life due to the trauma of domestic violence.

However, clinical research shows that early intervention can be helpful and is essential to combat some of the negative consequences associated with witnessing domestic abuse.

Domestic violence and Covid-19

Domestic violence and Covid-19

Studies have shown that the restrictions put in place during the Covid-19 outbreak, such as social distancing and getting told to stay at home, resulted in a significant rise in the trauma and retraumatization of young children and adolescents impacted by domestic abuse.

Restrictions such as staying at home coupled with school closures heightened the impact for young people and children coping with the long-term implications of domestic violence.

The Covid-19 restrictions further exacerbated the traumatic impact of domestic abuse when other socio-economic challenges such as poverty and loss of income were rife.


An educational review surrounding domestic violence showed that children exposed to domestic abuse are more likely to experience learning difficulties, motor, verbal and cognitive issues, aggression and antisocial behaviours, self-harm disorders, as well as depression and anxiety.

According to Brown and Brzostek, an additional element to domestic violence exposure is the increased risk of adult domestic violence, with males frequently becoming offenders, victims or both, and females more likely to become future victims.

Unsatisfactory relationships

Literature has revealed that children exposed to domestic violence are far more likely to experience unsatisfactory relationships due to the traumatic impact of domestic abuse. A wide range of difficulties is prevalent in domestic abuse survivors, such as:

  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Poor sibling relationships as well as unsatisfactory peer and social relationships
  • Withdrawal
  • Low self worth
  • Oppositional behaviour

Other factors

Other adverse consequences of domestic abuse exposure include pro-violence attitudes, rigid gender-stereotypical beliefs, bullying, assault, destruction of property and substance abuse.


According to Carlson, 2000; Edleson, 2011; and Hughes et al., 2001, several safeguarding factors can dilute the worst impacts of domestic abuse.

These factors include a child’s overall intelligence, social efficacy and competence, and whether the child has safe and encouraging relationships with at least one influential adult figure.

The healthcare system and neighbouring communities and schools have a duty of responsibility when it comes to protecting children exposed to domestic violence.

Some of these protective factors may include effective intervention with families, schools and other communities to encourage healing and recovery.

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If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of trauma related to domestic violence – then perhaps it’s time to get in touch with a specialist who will help you address your issues in a safe and encouraging space.

Get in touch with a team member today and find out how we can help you.

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