The Effects of Violence on the Family Unit
Marital Violence and Children's Health and Development
Written by Ryan J. Kelly, PhD
Assistant Professor of Family and Child Studies
University of New Mexico
In many U.S. homes, children are exposed to parental marital conflict. In the healthiest of marriages, conflict is normative and disagreements commonly occur over finances, child-rearing practices, and equal division of household duties. Children who witness constructive communication tactics and resolution between parents often benefit from observing such interactions. For example, couples who calmly solve disagreements often have children who demonstrate excellent negotiation and conflict resolution skills in their own peer relationships.
Unfortunately, some children do not have such advantageous home lives and are exposed to toxic forms of marital conflict including psychological (e.g., criticism, intimidation, manipulation) and physical violence (e.g., shoving, hitting, throwing objects at partner). The prevalence of such violence is of U.S. national concern with major ramifications for children’s health and development. Decades ago, prior to the availability of scientific evidence, some scholars suggested that children who reside in high-risk homes become desensitized and that marital violence confers minimal risk for a healthy development. Since that time, many rigorous scientific investigations have been conducted and empirical evidence has sharply contrasted with those early assertions. Children do not become desensitized or “used” to violence. Rather, hypersensitization occurs and children are placed at great risk for maladaptation including symptoms of anxiety and depression. In addition, children’s whose parents perpetrate violence commonly use similar aggression tactics toward their peers (e.g., intimidating or hitting other children). Further, the human brain may undergo a recalibration to program itself to be more sensitive to threat cues. In a recent investigation, children were asked to view images of angry faces while undergoing a brain scan. Children from homes marked by marital violence experienced greater activation in portions of the brain responsible for detecting threat and inducing arousal. Although such arousal may be adaptive for surviving in a violent home, it may compromise other facets of children’s lives. For example, during social interactions these children often misperceive low-risk situations as overly-threatening and commonly respond in hostile and inappropriate ways.
Marital violence also disrupts children’s sleep. In order to achieve sufficient and high quality sleep, one must reduce awareness of the surrounding environment. Children who are exposed to marital violence often maintain heightened vigilance and have concerns about their family’s safety and the future intactness of the marital relationship (e.g., “will my mother and father divorce?”); these worries strike at the core of a child’s sense of security and ability to reduce arousal at night. It is not uncommon for children to spend hours attempting to fall asleep or to wake often during the night. This in turn greatly compromises daytime functioning including physical health and classroom performance. Indeed, marital violence jeopardizes immune functioning and academic performance and disruption in sleep accounts for a portion of these associations.
Of particular concern are the long term effects of marital violence. It is not uncommon for children to experience sleep disruptions, cognitive impairment, and poor mental health functioning (e.g., symptoms of anxiety and depression) later in life. In addition, the use of psychological and physical aggression tactics are often transmitted across generations. That is, despite having feared marital violence during their own childhood, these individuals often mimic the same aggressive behaviors in their own romantic relationships. In a similar fashion, these children are commonly attracted to and seek out partners who perpetrate violence.
Overall, mounting evidence indicates that marital violence compromises children’s health and development. The findings shine light on the need for high quality prevention and intervention programs. The availability of community-based services including domestic violence shelters increases the likelihood that an adult victim and their children will exit a violent home. Shelters are particularly beneficial because they can provide a sense of safety and security to children, which has major positive implications for health and school performance. The availability of such services also help reinforce a nonviolent community standard and expectation.