Impact of Domestic Abuse on Children

Children who live in homes with domestic abuse, grow up in an environment that is filled with fear, tension, anxiety, and unpredictability. Witnessing abuse in the home leads to significant emotional and psychological trauma that mirrors the trauma experienced by children who are victims of child abuse. Children are forced to “grow up” quickly and often have to take on a “parenting role” by having to worry about the future; when will an incident happen again, how can I protect myself, my siblings, my abused parents, and their valuable belongings. The objective in their lives is getting through each day without making their abusive parent mad, which doesn’t leave them time to have fun, relax, or be a child anymore. Children in homes where violence occurs are physically abused or neglected at a rate of 1500% higher than the national average.

Emotional Trauma

Children living in a home with domestic abuse suffer from emotional trauma, that is dominated by an overwhelming sense of terror, helplessness, and horror. These children will see and hear their protective parent threatened, demeaned or physically or sexually assaulted. Children are used as leverage by the abuser to hurt their protective parent. Having chronic exposure to trauma causes the brain to develop in a way that will help the child survive in bad moments, but hinders them from thriving in settings such as a classroom. Trauma shapes how a child’s brain develops beliefs and expectations about themselves, about adults around them, and about the world in general.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 1 in 15 children are exposed to intimate partner violence each year, and 90% of these children are eyewitnesses to this violence. 

Physical or Sexual Abuse

Children who were exposed to violence in the home are 15x more likely to be physically and/or sexually assaulted than the national average. Children may be caught in the middle of an assault by accident or because the abuser intends it. Infants can be injured if being held by their mothers when the abuser strikes out. Children may be hurt if struck by a weapon or a thrown object and older children are frequently assaulted when they intervene to defend or protect their protective parent.

According to the American Society for the Positive Care of Children, a child is abused every 10 seconds. Offenders that use abuse on their partners are likely to use abuse on their children. Often there is a direct correlation between the severity of abuse inflicted on the protective parent and the child(ren). The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that approximately 70 percent of children that die from abuse are under the age of 4. 

Child Abduction

As mentioned earlier, children are often used as leverage by offenders to control the protective parent. Offenders may use their child(ren) to keep their partners from leaving,  to force their partners and children to return home following separation, or as a way to punish the protective parent for leaving and in some cases children have even been killed.  The risk to children during and following separation is substantial. 


At Harbor House, over half of the people we have in shelter at any given time are children. We have staff devoted to working with our children and teens. A metaphor that we use at Harbor House when describing the effects of child abuse is the “invisible suitcase”. Children that grow up in homes with domestic abuse experience trauma that shapes how they feel about themselves, trusted adults, and about the world in general. Trauma causes children to fill their invisible suitcase with feelings of self-doubt, blame, anger, and shame. 

Often children will use their invisible suitcase as their baseline to feel good about themselves. An example would be “Today is the day that I am going to be good enough for them to love me.” These feelings will follow children into adulthood if they do not receive services and support to process their experience.

The goal of our Children and Youth Program is to help them navigate their feelings and thoughts about themselves. Our goal is to help children learn tools and strategies on how to be safe, how to cope, and how to navigate the situations they face. We want to help children and teens unpack & repack their invisible suitcases with positivity, confidence, and capable thoughts and feelings.

To do this a child needs to feel loved, capable and settled. Our Children and Youth Advocates focus on building these three needs throughout all aspects of their programming. Some of the ways we do this is by 

  • Ensuring their safety (Stop and help them focus and breath)
  • Reorient (Look around and take in immediate surroundings)
  • Reassure (find a stress buster – what settles them (activities, places, people, etc.)
  • Define what happened
  • Respect and normalize their experience
  • Differentiate past from the present

We strive to create genuine connections with children we work with and to help their protective parent build a stronger connection with them as well. 


Domestic abuse is hard to talk about and is especially hard to even think about when it comes to children, but the Fox Cities is not immune to the issue. Adults and children here in our community are experiencing domestic abuse today. Every year, Harbor House supports over 1,500 adults and children with programs and services. In 2019, over 450 children received our services. Unfortunately, the ultimate act of domestic abuse is homicide. In the past year and a half, our community has experienced that we are not immune to domestic abuse homicide that involves children.

To learn more about our Children and Youth Program and how we are supporting our young survivors of domestic abuse. If you want to speak with an advocate to ask about a relationship you are in or someone you love is in, please give us a call at 920-832-1667, we have advocates available 24/7 to listen and provide support.