Domestic Violence in Families: Theory, Effects, and Intervention

If a person experiences trauma; specifically that of domestic violence, either directly or vicariously (indirectly) from a young age, they do not properly pass though the appropriate developmental stages. This will hinder their emotional growth—causing them to remain stuck in one particular stage. Therefore, this child will not develop and maintain a normal level of trust in his/her parents because they will not feel the appropriate amount of safety in their environment. This alone, will affect how the family members relate to one another from that point on and will put the child at a disadvantage because they will be unable to form healthy relationships with those outside the family system as well. Depending on the frequency, intensity, and duration of the violence, these effects may be life-altering, devastating, and last for many years to come.

A child who experiences this type of trauma at a young age, will not have an appropriately developed brain. This idea suggests that there will be significant differences between the brain of child who has grown up or is currently growing up in a loving, supportive, and caring environment, and the brain of a child who is witnessing domestic violence within their family system, causing them to experience constant fear and inconsistency; hence the inability to grow and thrive. This type of upbringing will cause the child to develop the sense that he/she is in constant danger; also known as the “fight or flight” response; meaning that they will be in a consistent state of hyper vigilance. It is well documented that the cycle of violence is a constant, causing patterns of violence to develop within the family over a period of generations.

Much of the client population we serve in the field of social work, have experienced or at least witnessed some form of violence whether it is indirectly within their neighborhood or directly from someone they know/love or watching someone they love be badly hurt, beaten, or killed. Becoming more knowledgeable of the effects that this trauma has on children and families developmentally as well as socio-emotionally allows us to provide a higher quality of care to our clients and their families.

One of those main ideas is the cycle of violence and what makes a victim consistently return to their abuser; the classic question. It has been relayed to me many times by various professional sources that it takes a woman 5 or 7 times of attempting to leave her abuser, before she will actually not return. (Yamawaki, Ochoa-Shipp, Pulsipher, Harlos & Swindler, 2012) Stemming from this idea, a child being brought up in this violent environment will not develop the same way as a child who is raised in a loving and nurturing environment. I decided I wanted to explore these differences in physical and psychosocial development as a result of experiencing vicarious or direct violence/trauma. I also wanted to look at the short-term as well as the long-term effects of domestic violence on the various family members, emotionally as well as behaviorally. There is quite a bit of speculation regarding the theories of domestic violence as well as the contributing factors and I think that learning more about those would benefit me greatly because I will obtain greater insight on where/how to identify and recognize domestic violence and its effects. Lastly, I believe that it’s vital especially in the social work profession, to possess current and up-to-date information about what services are currently in place and/or are being offered to help individuals and families in domestic violence situations or who have been in the past.

Domestic violence (DV) cuts across all age groups, social classes and travels beyond the extent of physical abuse. It includes emotional abuse including threats, isolation, extreme jealousy and humiliation, and sexual abuse as well. Whenever an individual is placed in a situation involving physical danger or when she is controlled by the threat or use of physical force, this is considered domestic abuse. Domestic violence generally occurs in cycles, requiring the social worker to be able to recognize it so that he/she can intervene appropriately. (“Ohio physicians’ domestic,” 1995) Many barriers exist to identifying DV. Many of these women are either reluctant or unable to get help for themselves and their children. Some may be held captive, while others may be lacking transportation or the financial means to acquire help. (Yamawaki, Ochoa-Shipp, Pulsipher, Harlos & Swindler, 2012)

A woman’s cultural, ethnic, or religious background may also influence her response to the abuse as well as her awareness of viable resources and options. (“Ohio physicians’ domestic,” 1995) In this profession, we are all aware of the immediate effects of DV such as physical injuries. Further research has also shown me that the abused spouse may experience chronic psychosomatic pain or pain due to diffuse trauma without visible evidence. The abused spouse and/or child may develop chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, other anxiety disorders, or depression. These conditions can be recognized by various symptoms including sleep and appetite disturbances, fatigue, decreased concentration, chronic headaches…etc. (“Ohio physicians’ domestic,” 1995) Battered women experiencing PTSD can become entangled in a myriad of symptoms such as avoidance, numbness, fear, and flashbacks; interrupting normal functioning and interfere with adapting coping mechanisms. (Basu, Malone, Levendosky & Dubay, 2009) Psychosomatic complaints are also detected with frequent visits to the physician’s office without evidence of any physiological problems. Suicide rates are also known to be higher in battered women than other women. (“Ohio physicians’ domestic,” 1995)

Some additional psychiatric problems related to the effects of DV include severe and ongoing depression, panic disorder, suicidal tendencies and substance abuse, which may hinder the battered spouse’s ability to appropriately assess her situation and take necessary action. Alcohol and/or drug use is frequently used to rationalize violent behavior. (“Ohio physicians’ domestic,” 1995) The family members affected as well as the abuser may insist that substance abuse is the problem and refuse to place the blame where it belongs. Stressful or violent relationships between adult partners can also lead to an increased sense of negativity in the parent-child dyad and exacerbate the negative effects of exposure; particularly for women with anxiety symptoms or diagnosis of PTSD. (Basu, Malone, Levendosky & Dubay, 2009) According to Systems Theory, a family can be thought of as a system, regarding each member as a subject, mutually influencing each other and displaying patterns and various developmental processes. (Robbins, Chatterjee & Canda, 2012)Each of these members of the family system has a certain level of autonomy and independence but is interdependent by the other subjects to a degree as well; meaning that what affects one family member affects another. (Robbins, Chatterjee & Canda, 2012)

Children are often a factor in the woman’s decision to remain in a violent relationship. An estimated 3.3 million to 10 million children are exposed to domestic violence in their home each year. (Richards, 2011)Children’s exposure to DV and the effects that this exposure can have has been increasingly recognized in recent years. Research even suggests that when a child does not directly witness DV, they may still be negatively affected. (Richards, 2011)The stereotypical view of a child who has witnessed DV between his/her parents is that they are “emotionally traumatized” by the event. There has been much controversy over what “witnessing” DV really means. Research indicates that witnessing DV can involve a broad range of incidents including: hearing the violence, being used as a physical weapon, being forced to watch/participate in the assault, being informed that they are to blame for the violence, being used as a hostage, defending a parent, and/or having to intervene or stop the violence from occurring. Literature also indicates that the aftermath effects for a child include having to see a parent with bruises, see a parent be arrested, having their own injuries and/or the becoming the “parentified” child. Most research conducted on the impacts of childhood exposure to domestic violence focus on the range of psychological and behavioral impacts including but not limited to depression, anxiety, trauma symptoms, increased aggression levels, anti-social behaviors, lower social competence, temperament issues, low self-esteem, dysregulated mood, loneliness and increased likelihood of substance abuse. (Richards, 2011)These children are also at higher risk for school difficulties such as peer conflict or impaired cognitive functioning. Teenage pregnancy, truancy, suicide attempts, and delinquency are also listed as impacts. Long-term physical impacts have rarely been documented, but one study done indicated that children from violent homes are found to have significantly higher heart rates than other children even post-abuse. (Moylan, Herrenkohl, Sousa, Tajima, Herrenkohl & Russo, 2009) Another study found that living in a violent home is a also an attributing factor to a range of serious health conditions as mentioned above such as depression and substance abuse. (Moylan, Herrenkohl, Sousa, Tajima, Herrenkohl & Russo, 2009) Studies have also indicated that children from violent homes may be more likely to exhibit attitudes and behaviors reflecting their childhood experiences witnessing DV. (Richards, 2011) Domestic violence increases a child’s risk for internalizing and externalizing these outcomes during their adolescence. (Moylan, Herrenkohl, Sousa, Tajima, Herrenkohl & Russo, 2009) Research indicates that females are 229% more likely to become victims of DV than their peers from non-violent homes. (Yamawaki, Ochoa-Shipp, Pulsipher, Harlos & Swindler, 2012) In males, the prominent effect of abuse direct or indirect victimization is hyper aggression; suggesting that boys who witness DV or who are somehow involved, are more likely than girl to identify with the aggressor thus eventually perpetuating the abuse on their spouse and/or child. This may justify their own use of violence and or cause them to carry violence-tolerant roles to their adult relationships. (Moylan, Herrenkohl, Sousa, Tajima, Herrenkohl & Russo, 2009)

Based on self-reports from survivors of domestic violence whom I have had the privilege to personally speak to in confidence, I have been able to obtain first-hand information about the effects and devastating impacts of DV. Most of these battered women report having permanent problems with attachment in their personal relationships involving a lack of trust, a lack of ability to soothe their child or to be soothed by another person, difficulty sleeping, self-harm, and a lack of empathy or over-involvement in the distress of others. One of these women explained to me that the DV she experienced at the hands of her ex-husband exacerbated her substance abuse problem; primarily alcoholism. Another woman stated “My son and I haven’t been able to sleep for weeks.” In the brief time spent with these women and their children, I observed an abundance of hypervigilance and inattention. Many of the children appeared to be in the “fight or flight” heightened sense of defensiveness on a consistent basis. A mother’s little boy explained to me that he could no longer trust any man around his mother and that he still has “nightmares about seeing her get beat up and have bruises.” In many of these self-reporting cases, both the mother and her children were exhibiting characteristics of PTSD. Abraham Maslow’s Transpersonal Theory of Self-Actualization and Self-Transcendence Hierarchy of Needs explains that there is an inherent tendency of people to express their innate potentials for love, creativity, and spirituality. According to Maslow, in order for an individual to self-actualize successfully, a nurturing environment, providing all basic needs and social support. A child who is exposed to domestic violence will be unable to establish survival, security, and a sense of being loved, not allowing him the ability to transcend to the higher levels of creativity and spirituality. (Moylan, Herrenkohl, Sousa, Tajima, Herrenkohl & Russo, 2009) These children often grow up and are still unable to move past the level of safety and physiological needs. Each woman that I spoke to across the board reported having selected or continuing to select abusive partners. This leads me to believe that domestic abuse can turn into a pattern. In other words, until the woman is ready to tackle her feelings at the source of her emotional void, she will continue to place herself and her children at risk.

While treating these children in their school environment, I have come to find out that many of their behavioral problems stemmed from feelings of insecure attachment and a lack of sense of safety. Many of them exhibited psychomotor agitation and remained in a consistent, intense emotional state. As I moved through treatment with them and often times their mothers, I came to realize that they were both very distrusting and the child would often have lost his/her ability to “play.” I found myself having to be very creative in play therapy activities with these children because they remained so guarded. Depending on the child’s personality, some of them would internalize these feelings, while others would externalize them. The children who internalized their feelings were quite introverted, rarely socialized with other kids, had a very low self-esteem and were very hypervigilent and sensitive. Externalized behaviors would manifest themselves in more off-task, non-compliant, and defiant/disruptive behaviors. I would usually give these children a diagnosis of Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Many of them had problems with attention and impulse control as well and were given Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. These families usually continued to struggle throughout the course of treatment. Due to many of the mothers’ fear of being alone, they would continue to associate with controlling men because that is what they were accustomed to. I always knew that my number one priority is to the safety and well-being of the child and would do my best to empower them and be consistent in treatment so that they would slowly realize that there are people you can trust. I was able to help a mother find a doctor for her and her son who prescribed her son medication for his ADHD. As a result, his behavior problems at school have greatly decreased and assisted him and his mother in mending their broken relationship. With patience, understanding and attunement, I was able to take most of the children at least one step further than where they started.

The intergenerational transmission of domestic violence has been one of the most commonly reported influences in DV during adulthood. Research conducted on this transmission of DV, further perpetuation the “cycle of violence” is based largely on Social Learning Theory. (McCluskey, 2010) This theory validates that observing violence in one’s home as a child creates ideas and norms about how, when, and toward whom aggression is appropriate. Early studies found a high frequency of violence in families from which the family of origin included domestically violent man/men. A national sample found that exposure to inter-parental spousal DV contributes to the probability for martial aggression for both men and women. (McCluskey, 2010) In aiding victims of domestic violence, the social worker must be able to identify the developmental origins of the client’s struggles and inner-conflicts. Based on an article written by a social work graduate student about her experience interning at a domestic violence shelter, one of her client’s early life was disrupted by an adverse social environment filled with unreliable sources of support and a lack of nurturance. This caused the woman to internally replicate a persistent and pervasive mistrust of others throughout her life, develop a terrible self- of herself as well as negative feelings regarding her external world. (McCluskey, 2010) She had become self-injurious, and she did not develop the ability to care for her children properly, stating that doing for them was “too overwhelming.” This woman’s early object relations have set the tone for her adult patterns of relating to others and her present-day conflicts. As explained in this student’s article, when object relations theory is applied to social work within the context of domestic violence, it illuminates the psychological aspects associated with early relational patterns. (McCluskey, 2010)

Erickson’s Psychosocial Stage 1- Trust versus Mistrust provides that during the years of early infancy, the child must develop a sense of trust for their caregiver. The experience of trauma; specifically domestic violence during this beginning stage, can lead to inadequate emotional development, causing this child to remain at this stage instead of passing through to the appropriate ongoing stages. If this trust is not gained at an early age, the child will grow up anticipating that the world will reflect danger and volatility and that people are not to be trusted. (McCluskey, 2010)

Psychological theories of DV perpetration analyze more individual factors including personality disorders, neurobiological/neuroanatomical factors, disordered or insecure attachment, cognitive distortions, and post-traumatic symptoms as previously stated. (Corvo, Dutton & Chen, 2008)Evidence suggests that violent husbands show more psychological distress, more tendencies to personality disorders, more attachment/dependency issues, a higher tendency towards anger and hostility and more alcohol problems than non-violent men. There is a much larger body of research that examines the relationship between psychological factors and DV in general. (Yamawaki, Ochoa-Shipp, Pulsipher, Harlos & Swindler, 2012)

It is well documented that one of the impacts of prolonged exposure to DV is a decrease in cognitive ability. (Corvo, Dutton & Chen, 2008)The brain stem to the frontal cortex is often negatively impacted. One area of particular importance is the association between frontal lobe deficits and DV. In general, frontal lobe deficits refer to compromised abilities to inhibit impulsivity or aggression or to redirect attention from repetitive behavior. Multi-disciplinary health and development studies have illustrated the factors most closely correlated with DV were associated with general criminal offending, a scope of mental health problems, academic failure, economic resource deficits, and early onset anti-social behavior. (Corvo, Dutton & Chen, 2008)

Attachment Theory suggests that an assaultive male’s violent outbursts may be a form of protest behavior directed at his attachment figure that may have rejected him and/or precipitated by perceived threats of separation or abandonment. (Robbins, Chatterjee & Canda, 2012) Thus, the central features of a fearful attachment pattern are anxiety and anger. Early life separation and loss were strongly correlated with adult DV perpetration as well as exposure to parental violence, validating that insecure attachment style is related to the dis-regulation of the negative flow of emotions in intimate relationships. (Moylan, Herrenkohl, Sousa, Tajima, Herrenkohl & Russo, 2009)

Most group interventions to treat the effects of domestic violence generally focus on male batterers whereas treatment groups for battered women and their children are rare. There are many potential benefits of these interventions for the women and their children such as increasing empowerment, decreasing feelings of isolation, developing interpersonal skills, increasing coping strategies and gaining knowledge of resources. A DV shelter can be the answer in the short-term aftermath of the abuse, as a temporary safe house for the woman and her children where all basic needs are met. While DV shelters often provide counseling and support services for battered women and their children, these programs are typically informal and lack empirical support. (Yamawaki, Ochoa-Shipp, Pulsipher, Harlos & Swindler, 2012) Group intervention for trauma survivors is common, victim-advocacy support groups, as well as Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and other CBT based interventions for both victims/families and their perpetrators. (Yamawaki, Ochoa-Shipp, Pulsipher, Harlos & Swindler, 2012)

The prevalence for minorities to be exposed to domestic violence is much higher than that of the general population. Underlying causes for this include the fact that they are more likely to be poor, allowing them less access to services, they have to endure more foster care changes as well as experience more cumulative effects of DV. (Swartz, 2012) Another statistic shows that more than half of minorities have a diagnosed mental illness, but 75% of them do not receive services within 12 months of receiving a child abuse/neglect investigation. (Swartz, 2012) Several studies conducted on the impact of coordinated community response to DV validate that minority populations are overrepresented in shelter populations; meaning that the current wave of interventions indicate little to no accommodation to the needs of racial minorities. (Swartz, 2012) Historically, the development of the DV shelter movement and community-based interventions emerged from predominantly Caucasian populations with an upper-middle class socioeconomic status. In many ways, the field of Social Work is still lacking culturally competent approaches consistent with creating an environment consistent for helping minority groups succeed in treatment. Studies show that increased cultural sensitivity and an individualized perspective integrating racial and ethnic background is suggested to promote understanding of culturally specific underpinnings of violence and aggression; particularly in the African American and Latino communities. (Swartz, 2012

The first step towards ending family violence is for the victims and their children to be able to engage with practitioners they can trust and whom they can confide in. In order for our profession to remain effective in our work with these vulnerable women and their children, it is essential that we provide culturally and gender-sensitive skills. The social worker often struggles to find a balance between ensuring the safety of the mother and child while simultaneously empowering the mother to do that herself. As far as future directions, I believe that more attention needs to be paid to preventative work. (Keeling & van Wormer, 2011) I think that women survivors of domestic violence can be an excellent source for engaging in DV advocacy leading to improved service provision and policy development. (Barner and Carney, 2011) It is suggesting that by embracing this approach, we can open the door to better engagement with these vulnerable individuals, striving together to ensure safety and increased ability to access service and support. (Barner and Carney, 2011) In terms of prevention, there definitely needs to be more inter-agency coordination when attending to the needs of women and their children. Funding for victim-based services is currently at an all-time low. A stronger need for community-based advocacy needs to be promoted, as well as flexibility in victim informed arrest, prosecution, sentencing, and intervention services. (Barner and Carney, 2011) Unfortunately, the system has become increasingly bureaucratic and punitive, causing women to continuously suffer in silence rather than seek the help that they need. (Keeling & van Wormer, 2011)

In social work practice, social workers and students of social work must continue to work for institutional change in making relationship building with women experiencing DV, a priority. Social work values related to the topic of DV are service (mental health treatment for domestic violence trauma), importance of human relationships (within the family system and larger social environment), dignity and worth of the person (each member of the family), social justice (domestic violence awareness and prevention), and competence (a social worker’s ability to serve this population objectively, professionally, and effectively). I believe the domestic violence training along with integrating policy and decision-making regarding DV services training into social work curriculum. Even for those who are most oppressed such as women, poverty-stricken individuals, those with mental illness, children, and other minorities, there is always an opportunity to act. In conjunction with the values of social work, we should always treat every person as an individual and respect their personal choices, including them in the implementation of their treatment/safety plans as well as continue to support them in obtaining professional and community support, contributing to their healing process.


Robbins, S. P., Chatterjee, P., & Canda, E. R. (2012). Contemporary human behavior theory: A critical perspective for social work. (3rd edition ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.

The Ohio State Medical Association, The Ohio Department of Human Services-Ohio Domestic Violence Advisory Committee. (1995). Ohio physicians’ domestic violence prevention project: Trust talk- break the silence, begin the cure    

Barner, J. R., & Carney, M. M. (2011). Interventions for intimate partner violence: A historical review. Journal of Family Violence, (26), 235-244. doi: 10.1007/s10896-011-9359-3

Basu, A., Malone, J. C., Levendosky, A. A., & Dubay, S. (2009). Longitudinal treatment effectiveness outcomes of a group intervention for women and children exposed to domestic violence. Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma, 2, 90-105. doi: 10.1080/19361520902880715

Corvo, K., Dutton, D., & Chen, W. (2008). Toward evidence-based practice with domestic violence perpetrators. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 16(2), doi: 10.1080/10926770801921246

Keeling, J., & van Wormer, K. (2011). Social worker interventions in situations of domestic violence: What we can learn from our survivors’ personal narratives?. British Journal of Social Work, (42), 1354-1370. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcr137

McCluskey, M. J. (2010). Psychoanalysis and domestic violence: Exploring the application of object relations theory in social work field placement. Clinical Social Work Journal, (38), 435-442. doi: 10.1007/s10615-010-0266-5

Moylan, C. A., Herrenkohl, T. I., Sousa, C., Tajima, E., Herrenkohl, R. C., & Russo, M. J. (2009). The effects of child abuse and exposure to domestic violence on adolescent internalizing and externalizing behavior problems. Journal of Family Violence, (25), 53-63. doi: 10.1007/s10896-009-9269-9

Richards, K. (2011). Children’s exposure to domestic violence in Australia. Trends and Issues in crime and criminal justice, (419), 1-5.

Yamawaki, N., Ochoa-Shipp, M., Pulsipher, C., Harlos, A., & Swindler, S. (2012). Perceptions of domestic violence: The effects of domestic violence myths, victim’s relationship with her abuser, and the decision to return to her abuser. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 27(16), 3195-3212. doi: 10.1177/0886260512441253

In Christine Swartz PCC (Chair). Developmental trauma and its effects on children. (2012).












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