Dealing with the affected of witnessing parental conflict


Every now and again it’s good to provide information that will bring awareness to real life problems.

The family constellation is in trouble. Even when a family overcomes domestic violence, the effects of the events linger long after the watchful eyes of “little Johnny” can not see anymore. His memory of the incidents stays in the family and not easily forgotten, they affect him years later. These images are burned in his memory forever. This fact sheet will focus on and expose this often forgotten evil and offer helpful suggestions to counselors who deal with this type of abuse.


Children today hear and see lots of things and unfortunately some of the most beautiful memories are smeared by some kind of abuse. Studies have shown that kids today see a wide spectrum of abuse that becomes hard for them to digest. Abuse such as physical violence, verbal abuse and threats are just a start. Some children have been injured while watching the father wail on their mother or were injured by trying to stop the father from beating the mother. Some, sadly, have taken an active part in the violence. Whatever the means, our eyes take “forever pictures” of these events. Each year an estimated 3.3 million children are exposed to violence against their mothers or female caretakers by family members. (American Psychological Association, Violence and the Family: Report of the APA Presidential Task Force on Violence and the Family,1996)

Researchers agree that most of the violence children see comes out of their own homes. A child’s exposure to the father abusing the mother is the strongest risk fact for transmitting violent behavior from one generation to the next (American Psychological Association, Violence and the Family: Report of the APA Presidential Task Force on Violence and the Family,1996). Moreover, in families where the mother is assaulted by the father, daughters are at risk of sexual abuse 6.51 times greater than girls in non-abusive families (Bowker, Arbitell and McFerron, 1988). And then, Male children who witness the abuse of mothers by fathers are more likely to become men who batter in adulthood than those male children from homes free of violence (Rosenbaum and O’Leary, “Children: The Unintended Victims of Marital Violence,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 1981)


When an incident occurs in the home, the focus always centers around the direct parties involved. When mom and dad fight, counseling is between mom and dad. Rarely do the witnesses’ feelings become an issue. Children experience emotional overload during this time and even when the parents seem to have “ironed out” their differences and resumed life, the kids are emotionally “stuck” at the scene of the crime. A survey of 6,000 American families found that 50 percent of men who assault their wives, also abuse their children. (Pagelow, “The Forgotten Victims: Children of Domestic Violence,” 1989). In addition, research shows that 80 to 90 percent of children living in homes where there is domestic violence are aware of the violence. (Pagelow, “Effects of Domestic Violence on Children,” Mediation Quarterly, 1990).

Professionals serving the needs of children exposed to domestic violence should be prepared to provide:
(1) Crisis intervention (i.e., assess for safety; develop a safety plan; file an abuse report; and provide crisis counseling);
(2) Assessment (i.e., assess current functioning, suicide risk);
(3) Short and long-term therapy (i.e., gradual exposure, trauma processing, reduction of feelings of responsibility and self-blame).