December 01, 2014

Understanding Childhood Domestic Violence

Claire Chiamulera

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

When thinking about domestic violence, certain words come to mind: women, abuse, violence, beating. Children are rarely mentioned, according to Brian Martin, founder of CDV-Children of Domestic Violence.  

Martin, author of the new book Invincible: The Ten Lies You Learn When Growing Up with Domestic Violence and the Truths to Set You Free, is working to change that. He spoke at a webinar hosted by the National Children’s Advocacy Center on November 11, 2014.

Recognizing CDV

According to Martin, terms associated with children and domestic violence include: abuse, emotional /verbal abuse, dysfunctional, child witness to intimate partner violence, and witness to violence. Yet these words are not widely used or known, reflecting society’s uncertainty and lack of recognition of the issue, he said.

Martin cited UNICEF’s recent finding that interpersonal violence affecting children is one of the “greatest human rights problems of our time.” He also cited growing evidence of the intergenerational nature of childhood domestic violence. More than half of children who experience domestic violence are being raised by adults who experienced childhood domestic violence themselves, he said. 

Impact of CDV

Exposure to violence in the home negatively wires the child’s developing brain, said Martin. He explained that a series of negative beliefs are encoded in the brain early in life. Common beliefs include guilt, anger, fear, self-consciousness, resentfulness, loneliness, hopelessness, worthlessness, and feeling unloved. These beliefs shape a child’s feelings about him or herself and are manifested in the child’s behaviors. 

“We act and feel in accordance to what we believe about ourselves,” said Martin. He cited statistics showing that children who grow up with domestic violence are:

  • Six times more likely to commit suicide.

  • 50 times more likely to be addicted to drugs or alcohol

  • 74 times more likely to commit violent crime

  • More likely to be incarcerated —90% of prisoners came from homes with domestic violence.

Growing up with domestic violence as a child is also the single best predictor of whether someone will be in a domestic violence relationship as an adult, said Martin. He stressed the need for professionals to focus efforts on this aspect to turn things around.

A Child’s Resilience 

Children affected by domestic violence can transcend their circumstances, said Martin. He attributed this to the child’s resilience. “Resiliency happens when an adult steps in and helps the child unlearn what was learned,” said Martin. Through this process the brain begins to find evidence for the truth and replaces negative beliefs with positive ones. “It’s hard to have compassion for yourself if you don’t know you’re hurt,” said Martin. Similarly, “It’s hard to trust others when you don’t trust yourself.” By tapping the child’s ability to reframe negative beliefs into positive ones, the child is helped to reach his or her full potential.

To learn more about CDV, visit Martin's website.


Claire Chiamulera is CLP’s editor.