The startling toll on children who witness domestic violence is just now being understood
Witnessing abuse carries the same risk of harm to children’s mental health and learning as if the children had been abused directly, new research shows.
New research is giving scientists more insight into the far-reaching and long-lasting harms of domestic violence to the children who grow up around it – including a startling finding: Witnessing abuse carries the same risk of harm to children’s mental health and learning as being abused directly.
Brain imaging in infants shows that exposure to domestic violence – even as they are sleeping, or in utero – can reduce parts of the brain, change its overall structure and affect the way its circuits work together.
Studies show that when babies born to mothers who were subjected to violence during pregnancy become adults, they have three times as much inflammation in their bodies as those whose mothers weren’t. Inflammation causes a much higher risk of poor health, and a far greater likelihood of depression.
And research also shows that these children are as likely to have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as soldiers returning from war.
Psychologist Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, past president of the American Psychological Association’s division of trauma psychology, said “babies are like a blank slate.”
“If a mother is beaten while pregnant, there is a chance the baby will be injured, delivered prematurely, and there is a stack of other things that can happen – including physiological programming of the hyperactive stress system that leads to inflammation as an adult,” she said.
“It’s like when a soldier comes back from combat, hears a click and hits the ground.”