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The Correlation Of Children's Mental Health And Domestic Violence

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Development and Attachment

According to attachment theory, an attachment is a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another person, across all space and time. If an infant does not attach to a primary caregiver within 5 years, then the child can face developmental problems. If a child is growing up in a home where they are being exposed to domestic violence, it is harder for them to form a secure attachment to a significant adult in their life. A secure attachment is needed for a healthy development (4), and helps a child experiencing domestic violence to cope (4). Without a consistent caregiver in a non-violent environment, development is severely affected (3). Issues and problems in early attachment can have dire and extreme consequences, which can affect them whilst they are being subjected to watching and/or experiencing domestic violence; and the repercussions can follow them deep into adulthood, and even remain with them for life.

“Toxic stress in the prolonged activation of stress response systems in the absence of protective relationships. Toxic stress can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse (6)”. Infants and small children (in early attachment stages) who are exposed to domestic violence in their home, are suffering from such a great amount of toxic stress, that it can harm their development of the neural wiring in their brain. This can lead to an impairment in their cognitive and sensory growth (1). The formation of basic specific neural wiring is essential to even the most primitive cognitive and sensory growth. Without it, the formation of much more complex neural pathways cannot be properly formed (4). This unequivocally damages them for life. When toxic stress is experienced for a prolonged amount of time after the attachment period, physical consequences are still suffered in vast amounts. Consequences of toxic stress can be as extreme as the development of diabetes, hypertension, and even cardiovascular disease (4).

A plethora of problems can arise from a lack of secure attachment through witnessing and/or experiencing domestic violence. Children who go through this, have to, in most cases, also go through the problems that are associated with it. They can have issues with bed wetting, potty training, and language development. These are all crucial developmental skills we learn in order to be accepted as part of society. Lack of language development from children in homes where domestic violence is common, so a mixture of this and poor concentration and focus results in their reading abilities being 40% lower than children in non-domestic violence homes (1). Children from these homes tend to have a much lower IQ compared to their peers; a whole 12.2 percentile lower than their peers from non-violent homes. Issues potty training and bed wetting tend to stem from similar issues surrounding sleeping issues, feeing/eating issues, and poor weight gain. These factors make child victims of witnessing/experiencing domestic violence physically weaker and thus innately less healthy and less able. The lack of attachment also affects them emotionally; children with no attachments are more likely to become jealous, aggressive, and violent in later life (3).

In England and Wales alone, 140 men and women each year are victims of uxoricide (one parent killing the other parent). This leaves their child without any significant caregiver, as one parent is dead, and the other is most likely incarcerated. Children who are made to experience the effects of uxoricide do not tend to cope well as they do not have a secure attachment to a non-violent adult anymore. This makes them much more susceptible to the effects of no secure attachments. Not all children who are experience the effects of uxoricide are left with no secure attachments, but the majority are (4).

The ramifications of domestic violence can affect the development of the child before it is even born. Pregnant women are less able to defend themselves than non-pregnant women. Women who experience the effects of physical domestic violence whilst pregnant are more likely to have a miscarriage before birth, or to give birth to a still born baby. If the baby survives the physical domestic violence in the womb, it is also more likely to have a long-term disability as a result.

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Behaviour is how a living organism outwardly reacts to the external stimulus it experiences i.e. how it externally responds to its environment. Some behaviour is innate in all of us, however most behaviour is learned. Behaviour is learned through both classical and operant conditioning. Behaviour in children is greatly influenced by their surroundings and subsequently their home life. If a child is exposed to a certain behaviour regularly, then they can either adapt that behaviour or reject that behaviour; depending on how they react to it. Social learning theory states that we reproduce behaviour if we experience vicarious reinforcement from it. Vicarious reinforcement is when we see others being a rewarded for a behaviour, so we copy that behaviour as a result. For example, if a child saw their dad being aggressive to their mum, and their dad getting what they wanted, they would see aggression as a positive behaviour to display and therefore display that behaviour themselves.

When a child experiences low amounts of warmth from their parents and siblings, they are more likely to become aggressive themselves (2). Research by Penn and Waller suggests that lack of parental warmth can lead to callous-unemotional traits and aggression (7). If your family acts cold and distant towards you, you will in return be cold and distant, which in virtually all of cases leads to aggression. Children who witness/experience domestic violence tend to have much lower empathy for others vs children who have no experience with domestic violence (1). Low empathy towards others is an example of a callous-unemotional trait. The lack of empathy towards others can result in social isolation (1), extreme withdrawal (3), and anti-social behaviours (4).

Every child behaves differently when left unshielded and alone, living in a house where domestic violence occurs. However, there are many common patterns in their behaviour. These children tend to be irritable, in constant emotional stress, immature etc. Confusion over what normal behaviour constitutes is also a prevalent issue (1). Even though there are common patterns, there are of course other factors which can determine how children living with domestic violence behave. Gender can influence how you process this type of trauma, boys tend to differ to girls in how they react to domestic violence as a stimulus and vice versa. Girls are more often likely to internalise their issues with this stimulus, which can manifest itself in anxiety disorders and major depressive disorder. Yet, boys are more likely to externalise their issues with this stimulus, often manifesting as aggression and disobedience (3). The extent of how severe the domestic violence is, also plays a large factor in determining behaviour. As the intensity of the domestic violence witnessed/experienced increases, so does the negative behavioural consequences; such as fearfulness and aggression. The more they perceive their mother as being subjected to conflict, the more acute distress they display. Subsequently, this leaves them feeling more fearful than their peers onlooking any form of adult conflict (2).

Exposure to domestic violence as a young child does not only affect you as a child, it can also affect you in your teenage years, and furthermore as an adult. Teenagers who were subjected to being exposed to domestic violence as a child, are more likely to be aggressive during late teen hood and going into adulthood. Teenagers who experience the effects of domestic violence are in fact 3 times more likely to be violent and engage in fighting. Moreover, an Australian study found that just over 40% of chronically violent teenagers had been subjugated to witness/experience extreme levels of domestic violence in the home (1). As an adult, you are more likely to be passive, withdrawn, and have a much lower frustration tolerance than your peers. Health problems are also more likely to occur; issues as serious as hyperarousal (a symptom of PTSD) can be a direct result of merely witnessing domestic violence in the home (3).


Psychopathology is most widely referred to as the scientific study of mental illness and disorders. Our psychopathology influences every aspect of our day to day life- from our ability to function adequately; right down to what job we are able to obtain and retain. The psychopathology of children often dictates how they live out the rest of their lives. It is vital for healthy mental development throughout our live, that as children we have a strong foundation of positive psychopathology. The basis of our psychopathology is formed during the first 5 years of childhood. If, during these critical years, something negatively impacts your ability to attach to a significant adult caregiver; all aspects of your emotional and physical wellbeing can be affected in a disruptive way. Oftentimes, children who have to endure witnessing/experiencing domestic violence in the home, will not attach to a significant adult caregiver securely. Consequentially, they can go through their lives with a poor psychopathology.

Psychosomatic illnesses occur when a physical illness or condition is caused, worsened, or exasperated by your mental state/wellbeing, i.e. internal conflict or stressors.

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The Correlation Of Children’s Mental Health And Domestic Violence. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 22, 2024, from
“The Correlation Of Children’s Mental Health And Domestic Violence.” Edubirdie, 16 Jun. 2022,
The Correlation Of Children’s Mental Health And Domestic Violence. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 22 Feb. 2024].
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