Resource Center for Families MH Effects of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) on Children
Resource Center for Families MH Effects of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) on Children

Effects of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) on Children

 How does IPV affect children? 
The negative effects of childhood exposure to IPV encompass all areas of life - physical, emotional, behavioral and developmental. Childhood exposure to IPV has negative consequences no matter what age the child is.

 The Effect of Trauma on Brain Development 
The brain develops in a sequential fashion from the more primitive and reactive of the brainstem and midbrain to the limbic system and cortex, which are involved in regulating emotions and abstract thought. As development progresses, the limbic system and cortex are able to regulate the more primitive brainstem and midbrain. Development also occurs in a "use-dependent" manner. Permanent changes occur when neural systems are activated repeatedly.

The developing brain's capacity for modulation and regulation dramatically changes as a result of persistent exposure to traumatic stress. These changes also occur when children live in environments without the cognitive and emotional experiences that are critical for enhancing brain development. Exposure to stress, neglect and trauma - including IPV exposure - result in increased activity and reactivity of the more primitive portions of the brain, as well as a decrease in the moderating capacity of the limbic system and cortex. Chronic exposure results in overdevelopment of the brainstem and midbrain stress-response systems, leading to problems with anxiety, impulsivity, poor affect regulation, motor hyperactivity and underdevelopment of limbic and cortical functions such as empathy and problem-solving. Repeated activation of the stress-response system leads to incorporation of these responses into daily functioning.

The impact of trauma on the developing brain is mediated by several factors: the severity of the trauma, the duration of exposure, the age at which exposure occurs, the child's temperament and personality and the presence/absence of protective factors such as a dependable, caring adult.

 Injury as Bystander

Children may be injured during an episode of physical abuse. Younger children are more likely to be caught in the crossfire and injured as bystanders. Older children and adolescents may also be injured when they try to intervene during physical abuse of a parent.







Birth to 2 years

  • Feeding problems
  • Failure to thrive
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Disrupted attachment
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Startles easily
  • Clingy, whining
  • Excessive crying
  • Failure to thrive
  • Disrupted or delayed developmental gains


2 to 5 years

  • Difficulty toilet training
  • Somatic complaints (stomachache, headache) 
  • Excessive fear, worry
  • Anxiety
  • Extreme separation anxiety
  • Lacks self confidence
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Clingy, whining
  • Yelling or irritability
  • Defiant
  • Withdrawn
  • Tries to be noticed
  • Regression to younger behavior
  • Poor impulse control
  • Disrupted or delayed developmental gains
  • Poor verbal, cognitive, and/or motor skills


5 to 12 years

  • Bedwetting
  • Somatic complaints (stomachache, headache)
  • Ulcers
  • Eating disturbance-under or over eating, hoarding food
  • Stuttering
  • Decreased self esteem
  • Denial & secrecy
  • Self-centered
  • Fear/anger
  • Depression
  • Guilt/self blame
  • Feelings of insecurity or distrust of environment
  • Ashamed & embarrassed
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Withdrawn or clingy
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Violent towards peers, siblings, animals
  • Lies & steals
  • Self-abusive
  • Poor impulse control
  • Learning-related difficulties
  • Poor school performance/failure
  • School phobia
  • Poor peer relationships
  • Disrupted developmental gains


13 to 21 years

  • Bedwetting
  • Eating disorders
  • Somatic complaints (stomachache, headache)
  • Ulcers
  • Isolation & depression
  • Extreme anger
  • Anxious, fearful
  • Uncommunicative, especially about feelings
  • Indifferent, lack emotion
  • Confused about sexual identity
  • Immaturity
  • Self destructive behavior: substance abuse, self mutilation, promiscuity, early pregnancy, suicidal
  • Extreme risk taking
  • Takes on parent/caretaker role
  • Delinquency (running away, trouble with the law)
  • Use of aggression with peers and family
  • Dating violence
  • Poor impulse control
  • Poor school performance/failure, truancy, dropout
  • Few friends

IPV and Child Abuse
IPV is associated with all forms child maltreatment: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect. The co-occurrence rate of child maltreatment and child abuse is as high as 78%. Children exposed to IPV are also at increased risk of death, either from physical child abuse or during a domestic violence homicide/attempted homicide.

IPV and Other Adverse Childhood Experiences 
In addition to an association with child abuse, IPV often co-occurs with other adverse childhood experiences, including parental mental illness, parental separation or divorce and criminal activity in the home. These adverse experiences are also associated negative consequences. Increasing numbers of adverse childhood experiences have been shown to have increasingly negative effects.

Adult Consequences of Childhood IPV Exposure 
The effects of childhood IPV exposure can last a lifetime. Adults who were exposed to IPV as children are more likely to have depression, alcoholism, severe obesity, attempted suicide, chronic lung disease, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and sexually transmitted diseases. They are also more likely to be involved in violent relationships, as victim and/or perpetrator, as adults.


* Material from It's Time to Ask

 It's Time to Ask is a comprehensive guide to developing and implementing IPV screening in the children's healthcare setting. It includes PowerPoint presentations and scripts, enrichment materials and pre-/post-course evaluations. This was developed by Children's Mercy Hospital's Denise Dowd, Jane Knapp, Chris Kennedy and Jennifer Stallbaumer and can be provided by Dr. Dowd ( upon request. 

See also:
Effects of domestic violence on children and adolescents: an overview by Joseph Volpe
(American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress)

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