Growing Up In the Shadow of Domestic Violence, Part 1

When we think about babies being harmed as a result of intimate partner violence, we might imagine nightmarish scenarios of physical trauma. Pregnant women getting hit in the abdomen. Babies getting injured by blows intended for a parent.

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Such terrible things do happen, but they probably represent only a small portion of the harm that children experience. What’s more common is for babies to suffer as the result of psychological trauma — trauma that changes the course of development.

Stress Can Alter the Way Children Physically Develop

To understand how it works, consider that development is directed by a complex soup of organic chemicals, like hormones and growth factors. When a pregnant woman is subjected to domestic violence, her brain responds with a spike of stress hormones, and these hormones are shared with her unborn baby, altering the prenatal “soup.”

Similarly, after birth, babies experience their own hormonal spikes. When a child sees or hears a caregiver being attacked, the child’s body is flooded with stress hormones, and again, this modifies the postnatal “soup.”

In either scenario, the soup may now cause dramatic changes in the way a child develops. It may put the brakes on growth, including the growth of brain cells. It may suppress the body’s ability to fight infection, making a child more vulnerable to a variety of diseases. It may damage the DNA and speed up the rate at which cells wear out. And the stress response system — the very thing causing these changes — may itself get altered.

Children Who Witness Domestic Violence React Differently

For example, in a recent study, researchers tracked two groups of babies from low income families — those living in peaceful homes, and those growing up in the shadow of domestic partner abuse. When the babies were 24 months old, the researchers, presented them with challenging social situations to see how they’d behave. The results were suggestive.

Babies who had witnessed domestic violence during their first 24 months were more likely to overreact. Their brains produced unusually high levels of stress hormone, and the effect was dosage-dependent: The more violence children had observed during their first 24 months, the more over-the-top their hormone spikes were.

That doesn’t bode well, and it may lead to a snowball effect, a continuing pattern of stress hormone dysfunction with long-term developmental consequences. Studies indicate that kids who experience lots of early life stress--including the trauma of witnessing domestic violence — are more likely to develop insecure attachments, emotional regulation problems, depression, post traumatic stress disorder, and lower IQ scores.

Early life stress has also been linked with impaired growth in several key areas of the brain, including areas involved with spatial learning, memory consolidation, stress reactivity, and the processing of emotion. And recent research suggests that kids who see acts of domestic violence are more likely to show brain abnormalities in the circuits linking memory, emotion, and the visual system.

A grim picture? Undoubtedly. But as depressing as it all sounds, these outcomes aren’t inevitable.

Parental Care Can Lessen the Impact of Stress

The best way to ensure a child’s healthy future is to prevent violence from occurring in the first place. Parents-to-be who are abused by their partners need to get support and remove themselves from danger. But even if a child has been affected by domestic violence, it’s not too late.

When researchers were conducting the stress hormone study on those 24 month old babies, they found that some kids developed normal stress reactions despite being exposed to domestic violence. Why? We can’t know for sure, but the kids all had something special in common. Their mothers showed high levels of sensitivity and responsiveness to their babies’ needs.

It can’t have been easy for those women, and it may have involved a bit of luck. Victims of domestic violence often suffer from depression and other psychological problems that make it hard to stay emotionally connected with their kids. But regardless of why some mothers were able to remain so attuned to their babies, the outcome of this study is consistent with what we know from other research:

Much of the damage caused by toxic stress — prenatal and postnatal — can be counteracted by consistent, sensitive, affectionate care.

So we need to take the problem very seriously. At no point is a child “too young” to be adversely affected by intimate partner violence, or “too damaged” to make good parenting and professional therapy a waste of time. By eliminating violence in the home, and making kids feel safe, loved, and understood, we can help children develop into healthy, well-adjusted adults.

Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.

Gwen Dewar received her Ph.D. in biological anthropology from University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where she studied evolution, social learning, parenting, primatology, and psychology. A science writer, she founded the website, Parenting Science in 2006, and popularizes research of interest to parents, educators, and students of human nature.