Starting now during Child Abuse Prevention Month, what if there was a more effective way to prevent it for future generations? What if there was a way to address current child abuse cases by looking deeper into connections that the adults of the house faced when they were children?

Where would that start?

It could and should start with making the connection to another global childhood adversity called Childhood Domestic Violence (CDV). These adversities often coexist with children that grow up with violence in their homes. UNICEF calls CDV “the single best predictor of becoming a victim or perpetrator of domestic violence” later in life. These children that may have faced both adversities are more likely to become child abusers themselves. This will enable the cycle of childhood trauma to continue.

The Definitions of Child Abuse and CDV

Child Abuse, (which also includes neglect) as defined by the CDC, is “any act or series of acts of commission or omission by a parent or other caregiver (e.g., clergy, coach, teacher) that results in harm, potential for harm, or threat of harm to a child.”

CDV is when a person grows up living in a home with domestic violence. From the lens of a child, domestic violence is violence between parents or violence towards a parent — perhaps from a stepparent or significant other.

How Child Abuse and CDV are intertwined

A child is much more likely to experience child abuse or neglect if at least one parent grew up with CDV. In addition, the two adversities very frequently co-occur in the same household. This further blurs the lines and also amplifies the impact.

Evidence shows that when a child experiences both CDV and child abuse together in their childhood home, they tend to fare worse later in life than if they experienced only one or the other of these adversities.

Although they may seem like separate issues, these two experiences are deeply connected:

  • Most perpetrators of domestic violence are men. And seven in ten men who are violent toward their partners are also violent toward their children.
  • If a child lives in a home with domestic violence, they are 15 times more likely to be abused.
  • Up to 70% of women in domestic violence shelters report that child abuse also occurred in their homes.
  • 38% of abused children are exposed to domestic violence in their homes. 78% of the time, the domestic violence leads to child abuse.
  • About 30% of abused and neglected children will later abuse their own children

If you know a child who is experiencing abuse or CDV, they are likely experiencing both issues in their home.

Why Child Abuse and CDV must be looked at together within families

Chief Program Officer of CASA Travis County, Texas, Emily Rudenick LeBlanc says there is an undeniable link between domestic violence and child abuse. She believes that the problem in society is that they are treated as separate issues – she calls them siloed issues.

Families that struggle with DV are often the same families struggling with child maltreatment and vice versa. She spent time as a therapist that focused on teens, and realized that children who witnessed DV (more aptly called growing up with CDV), were far more likely to be abused themselves. 30 – 60% of children living in homes with DV are also victims of abuse. 

In homes where there is domestic violence, children are physically abused and neglected at a rate 15 times higher than the national average. So CDV is a strong precursor to child abuse

The Impact of Child Abuse and CDV are similar on a life

“Most people know of or can imagine the extreme negative effects of child abuse. But what many fail to grasp is the similar impact of Childhood Domestic Violence on a person, as well as its strong relation to child abuse. And those are key pieces of the puzzle in addressing both issues.” 

 Dr. Linda Olson, licensed psychologist and psychotherapist

Although child abuse and CDV refer to different experiences, they can both cause childhood trauma. Child abuse and CDV are both examples of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). When a child experiences ACEs, they are more likely to:

  • Have behavioral issues as children
  • Abuse alcohol and/or drugs as adults
  • Experience physical health issues such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease
  • Experience mental health issues such as suicidal thoughts, depression, and anxiety

ACEs are traumatic events or circumstances that can cause lifelong negative outcomes for children.

Jacob Stapledon, of the Children’s Cove Child Advocacy Center believes that there is physical and neurological impact to a child that witnesses and experiences domestic violence. He, however, sets aside definitions when it comes to the impact of child abuse or CDV. He believes the damage is equal and that child abuse is the same as CDV.

Look at the below chart that shows how CDV impacts a child’s key areas of life:

It is the neurological impact of both Child Abuse and/or CDV that is most striking. Both adversities affect a child’s developing brain architecture by causing stress beyond the norm called toxic stress. This leads to fight or flight survival mechanisms to overdevelop, as well as causing behavioral and health issues. Learn more about toxic stress.

Child abuse and neglect impact cognitive skills, can cause a variety of diseases prematurely. It can also lead to mental health issues such as depression and thoughts of suicide, as well as increase the odds of risky or criminal behaviors into adulthood.

CDV has similar impacts exhibited by these statistics:

The lack of awareness of CDV in relation to child abuse

CDV as an ACE has considerably less awareness than all the other ones, including Child abuse. Compared to the other 9, which are known and have >90% general awareness, CDV has <10% awareness. It has never been properly branded or addressed, even by experts. So even among those who face it, most don’t realize it’s “a thing”. Or that it is something that happened to THEM, and those who do, don’t know what to call it.

The lack of awareness and understanding can lead to stigma, confusion, or minimizing of its gravity. CDV is often confused with other ACEs like physical child abuse or emotional abuse or other adversities in a home, like domestic violence. And its gravity is often downplayed with words like “witness” often used to describe it.

Why CDV needs greater understanding to aid in preventing child abuse

This lack of awareness by not only those in the field but the parents and caregivers that are abusive prohibits preventing child abuse in the future. It cannot be overlooked that those that grow up with CDV are 2-3 times more likely to repeat the cycle of violence in adulthood. Growing up with domestic violence is the single best predictor of whether or not someone will become a victim or perpetrator of domestic violence in adulthood.

And having looked at the statistics that CDV and child abuse do intertwine, there must be a more cohesive connecting of child and adult within families. This will help see that combating the ACE of CDV can prevent a new generation from being caught up in a new cycle of child abuse.

Even temporary relationships by a caring adult help

Researchers find that even when children have temporary relationships with caring adults are more likely to become resilient and experience positive life outcomes. These can include teachers, daycare providers, and mentors. For example, one study shows that abused children are more likely to avoid alcohol and tobacco use when they have support from caring adults.

Those that encounter children and adults that face either adversity should consider utilizing resources that can help them better understand what CDV is while supporting to aid in child abuse prevention.

Helping to fight against child abuse and CDV across generations

Change A Life gives you guidance on ways to step in to help a child that is facing childhood trauma from CDV. And for anyone that works with abused or neglected children this program will still give you new perspective and resources that can help. It will also show the relationship to your work and CDV, as in many cases, you may not know it, but it exists.

Resiliency Focused Mentor Training expounds on the concepts of the first program and delves deeper into topics focused around resiliency as well as neuroscience and psychology as it relates to children that face major adversities.

All these groups of professionals, as well as individuals would benefit from these resources. They can gain more knowledge and perspective to take on prevention of child abuse and work with adults who have grown up with CDV.

  • Police – may be the first responders in a DV incident
  • CASA – deal with abused and neglected children
  • Social Workers, shelter, youth crisis and other organizations – trained professionals that help vulnerable populations
  • Educators – have the potential to be an early line of defense by being a supportive adult to a child 
  • Medical staff – can discover mental or physical problems of a child or adult
  • Coalitions, School Boards, other Nonprofits – missions are to educate and bring awareness

Connecting the dots to change the cycle of abuse and violence

It’s important for those that are in a home with violence and abuse and those that work with these families to have the awareness and resources that can help the adults connect the dots. This means understanding that what they experienced in childhood is impacting their lives as well as their children’s. Multiple generations at the same time are living with these adversities and repeating the same patterns.

By shifting the thought process for the adults in these families, by having them understand that what they faced is hurting themselves and others, can this prevent their own children from living through what they did.