How Domestic Violence Makes Children Ill

Children who were abused, neglected or raised in a home where they witnessed domestic violence are far more likely to suffer in adulthood from cancer, heart disease, chronic lung disease, diabetes, obesity, partner abuse, mental illness, substance abuse and sexually transmitted diseases

by Alexis Jetter
how domestic violence affects children image
Photograph: Photographed by Julia Fullerton-Batten

For the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study—which the Huffington Post has called “probably the most important public health study you never heard of”—researchers enrolled more than 17,000 middle-class, largely college-educated men and women, polled them about their childhood experiences and now have been tracking their adult health problems for 18 years. The findings have been nothing short of dramatic. Children who were abused, neglected or raised in a home where they witnessed domestic violence are far more likely to suffer in adulthood from cancer, heart disease, chronic lung disease, diabetes, obesity, partner abuse, mental illness, substance abuse and sexually transmitted diseases.

The reason: Neuroscientists and pediatricians have found that when a child has a traumatic experience, such as witnessing an assault on his mother, the stress releases hormones that damage his still-forming brain. “The first 1,000 days of a child’s life are so important in determining his lifetime health trajectory,” says Megan Bair-Merritt, MD, associate professor of pediatrics at Boston Medical Center.

Though very young children do not form conscious memories, early traumatic experiences can trigger fear responses and flood their body with stress hormones, such as cortisol, that profoundly alter their nervous and immune systems. “Chronic exposure to stress affects how the brain develops,” Bair-­Merritt says. “The stress literally becomes embedded in children’s bodies.”

Samone,* 44, left an abusive marriage when her son and daughter were still toddlers. “The primary catalyst for leaving should have been the names he called me, or his throwing food in my face in a public parking garage, or pulling my hair out and punching me in the face in front of
our nanny and our children,” she says. “But the thing that prompted me to say, in my head, I’m leaving in the morning, was that I did not want my son to grow up believing that this is how men treated women, or my daughter to grow up believing this is how women should be treated.”

Now her kids are in their twenties, and Samone is grateful that her daughter has grown into a confident young woman. “But my son is struggling,” she says, fighting back tears. “The problems that he’s having are the hardest legacy of that abuse. My son appears to be the mirror image of his father.” Her son was recently arrested for assaulting his girlfriend. “To leave when my children were so young,” Samone says, “and yet find that so much of that had already set in—that feels like my biggest failure in life. We need to focus on the impact on children.”

*Not her real name

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First published in the November 2013 issue

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