Exposure To Domestic Violence

General Information

Witnessing violence against a parent/caregiver has a profound effect on a child’s well-being and ability to function. The use of the term exposure to domestic violence allows for a broader definition of the many ways children experience domestic abuse. These include hearing a violent event; being directly involved as an eyewitness; being injured as a result of the abuse; and living with the aftermath of the event. Brain functioning changes in response to the stress children living with such violence endure and the vigilance they must exercise to cope with their world. Coming to school, trying to learn, and developing healthy social relationships under such circumstances is monumentally difficult. But caring and supportive school environments can be a refuge, offering a possibility of predictability and calm and a chance to build on experiences where effort is predictably rewarded.

General Characteristics To Look For

Some children internalize their reactions to the world around them, and others externalize. Internalizers may appear more anxious, withdrawn, or overly compliant. They may manifest their stress in SOMATIC complaints (physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, bed-wetting) or by isolating themselves. With externalizers, conflict is usually more evident. They may be aggressive towards others, defiant, and in conflict with authority. Many students will appear tired and not be able to perform at expected levels; they may appear more on edge. Other characteristics include the following:

  • significant change in school performance/behaviour, deteriorating coping skills, homework not done, missing assignments and books
  • overachieving, excessively compliant, constantly seeking approval
  • takes on responsibility beyond his/her normal age expectations
  • takes on the job of protecting and helping other family members
  • excessive separation anxiety, attachment difficulties
  • expects a lot of him/herself and is afraid to fail; works very hard to get good marks in school
  • frequently overtired, cries more readily, chronically sad, low self-esteem
  • becomes more defiant in class; defiant to authority figures, particularly women teachers
  • may fight with or hurt other children or animals; does not get along well with other children
  • tries not to spend much time at home; stays around the schoolyard at the end of the school day
  • may appear more anxious, withdrawn; may isolate themselves, appear lonely
  • SOMATIC complaints

Impact On Student Success

  • Some students feel a need to stay around the house to keep watch. They find reasons to miss school.
  • Some students may struggle with peer relationships, academic performance, and emotional stability.
  • Students may act out their terrible confusion and distress by engaging in self-destructive behaviour or by aggression against others.
  • Students may lose faith in themselves, others, and their future.
  • Having experienced the world as unsafe and unloving, they may fall into despair and give up hope that their needs will be met.
  • Exposure to domestic violence may affect the child’s ability to build positive relationships with their peers (they may identify with either the abuser or the victim in relationships).
  • DO NOT IGNORE THE SIGNS OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE. Talk to others who can help plan an effective response.
  • Implement a strong violence prevention program supported by parents/caregivers, teachers, and community partners—work on prevention through education.
  • Recognize that school may be the student’s safe haven, even for those who externalize their distress and seem defiant.
  • Maintain predictability in the classroom environment.
  • Modify the student’s workload to reduce stress.
  • Communicate confidence in the student.
  • Use self talk to model strategies that students can use to manage their stress.
  • Initiate displays and/or discussions that explore violence awareness (e.g., in marketing classes, look at violence in ads; in media classes, look violence in music, videos, and movies).
  • Help facilitate referral to community services.
  • Provide professional development opportunities for staff.
  • Plan special awareness events focusing on violence prevention: develop a theme for homerooms for a week about violence awareness; host a violence-free week at school; hold an assembly on the White Ribbon Campaign to promote men’s action against violence
  • Create awards and other forms of recognition to be given to students for good citizenship, resolving conflict with peers.
  • Post bulletin boards in school that explore violence awareness.
  • Display posters with resource material and tear-off telephone numbers in guidance or resource area
  • Be there for the child. The most important protective factor for children exposed to violence is a secure relationship with an adult, most often a parent.
  • Be alert to the signs of an abusive relationship and use community resources to help with difficult choices.
  • Even if an abusive relationship is over, it may take a long time for children to feel safe and trusting again. Use community resources to help everyone in the family cope with the lingering effects of domestic violence.
  • Remember that effective work on the complex social problem of domestic violence cannot be done without a collective resolve by all community professionals to engage in a collaborative approach.
  • Advocate together for more support and community resources for children and women.
  • Promote and provide mental health services that can help reduce the impact of domestic violence on children and families. Facilitate referrals to other specialized resources as needed.
  • Make services fit the family, not the other way around.
  • Increase communication about the roles, responsibilities, and limitations of each service’s mandate and resources.
  • Engage in ongoing joint training initiatives.
  • Keep the focus on holding the offender accountable.
  • CAS, police, and probation services must consult prior to conditions being sought in court orders that would affect any of the other agencies’ mandates or resources. All of the services involved must be able to meet the expectations in those orders or recognizances.