Children Who Witness

Children Who Witness

Children and adolescents need their parent or parents to provide a caring, safe home and a stable family life where they can grow, learn and play.

When a child sees or hears a parent being abused by their partner, or otherwise knows that their parent is a victim of abuse, their sense of security is threatened.

Often, parents think that their children do not know that abuse is occurring, but children know a lot more about what is happening than we sometimes think they do. They may hear or see the scary event occurring; other times, they may know something bad has happened because of the worry on a parent’s face, the injuries on a parent’s body, or objects that are broken in the home.

Children are not “little adults.” They have unique ways of understanding violence. Listen carefully to how they make sense of what has happened. Help them understand in ways that are not detrimental to them.

Remember – helping children and young adults who are impacted by domestic violence requires close collaboration among families, advocates, health care providers, mental health providers, educators, law enforcement, and the criminal justice system. For information about available children’s services, click here.

For important statistics and information on this issue, view our fact sheet here.

Recognizing the Signs

Children of all ages, even infants, can be harmed by seeing or hearing abuse, and they often exhibit signs that they are being negatively impacted by domestic violence.

While these behaviors may be hard to handle and difficult to manage, children are only doing what they need to do to survive and cope. Be patient, and seek help to support your child in addressing these behaviors.

Sometimes, a certain child in the family appears to be most affected by domestic violence, but this child is communicating that the whole family needs help; siblings who are quiet or appear to be fine may be suffering in different, less obvious ways. If any one child exhibits signs of being impacted by abuse, be sure to take measures that address the situation for all involved.

Recognizing the Signs


  • Irritability, frustration, or inconsolable crying
  • Frequent illness, such as diarrhea
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Lack of routines around sleeping or eating
  • Difficulty separating from caregivers or lack of need for attachment
  • Developmental delays
  • Lack of responsiveness
  • Not expressing emotion
  • More tantrums than usual


  • Headaches or stomach aches
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Loss of skills learned earlier (e.g., toilet training)
  • Fear of being alone
  • Difficulty separating from caregivers
  • Developmental delays
  • Poor social skills
  • Difficulties at school
  • Anxiety
  • Aggression; acting out
  • Repeatedly revisiting violent event(s) through play or drawing
  • Problems with attention or hyperactivity


  • Using drugs or alcohol
  • Skipping school
  • Running away
  • Risky sexual behavior or pregnancy
  • Eating disorders
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Self-harm or suicidal thoughts
  • Withdrawing from activities or friends
  • Experiencing or perpetrating abuse in dating relationships

How to Help

The adult helping relationship is the most powerful tool we have to assist children in recovering from traumatic events.

It is important for a child who has witnessed abuse to have positive relationships with trusted, caring adults, particularly with the non-abusive parent in a relationship where the parent:

  • Is emotionally available and present
  • Provides ongoing love and support
  • Listens to and talks to the child about their feelings around the abuse, even though it is difficult
  • Listens to the child recount their experiences of the abuse
  • Creates routine, stability and safety in the home 
  • Seeks help for their own needs in dealing with the abuse (e.g., counseling, support groups)

When we don’t talk with children about the abuse that is occurring, children will construct their own ways of understanding the situation.

Talk to your children. Make sure they know that:

  • Abuse is not the norm and is not okay 
  • Violence is not an acceptable way to solve problems 
  • Men do not have the right to control or abuse women 
  • People do not have the right to abuse others 
  • Everyone has a right to feel safe
  • Everyone deserves respect

When talking to children:

  • Let them know that it is safe for them to share their stories and feelings with you
  • Listen carefully to how they make sense of abuse
  • Give clear, simple explanations about violent events they may have witnessed
  • Build their self-esteem by reminding them that they are important and loved 

Support children who have witnessed domestic violence by:

  • Teaching alternatives to violence (e.g., helping children learn healthy conflict resolution skills; encouraging creative, nonviolent play and activities)
  • Nurturing your children
  • Modelling respect and nonviolent problem solving
  • Establishing rules and routines so that children know what to expect in order to relieve anxiety and reduce outbursts
  • Being patient if children act out

When a child feels… Help them…

Fear; lack of control or safety

  • Create a safety plan, such as going to a trusted neighbor’s house
  • Identify areas of their life where they can make their own plans and decisions
  • Establish rules, expectations, and daily routines

Anger at the abuser or the non-abusive parent

  • Learn how to express their anger in ways that do not harm themselves or others

Anger and love for the abuser; guilt for both feelings

  • Understand that it is okay to feel this way
  • Understand that they may love the abuser but cannot accept the abusive behavior

Loss of a parent due to separation; loss of safety

  • Develop a support system of extended family and friends outside the home

Guilt or responsibility for causing the violence or not being able to stop it

  • Understand that the violence is not their fault
  • View the problem as an issue for adults, not as something they need to “solve”

Helpline Available 24/7

The confidential statewide Helpline can be reached by calling 1-800-494-8100 or using the online chat here. The Helpline is for all victims of violent crime, including domestic and dating abuse, and those looking for more information to help a victim of violence.

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