Children Who Witness

Even if children are not directly physically or verbally abused in a domestic violence situation, they can still experience trauma from witnessing the abuse. Secondary trauma describes a person’s exposure to traumatic events, including those that threaten the life or physical security of a loved one.

Children Who Witness Trauma: An Overview

  • Every year, an estimated 3-4 million children aged 3-17 are at risk of witnessing domestic violence.
  • Young children are particularly affected by secondary trauma because their sense of safety depends on the perceived safety of their attachment figures.
  • Children who repeatedly witness domestic violence may develop symptoms that affect their daily lives after the events have ended.
  • Witnessing trauma in early childhood has been associated with reduced size of the brain cortex, which regulates memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thinking, language, and consciousness.
  • Children’s responses depend on the severity of the violence, their proximity to the violent events, and the responses of their caregivers.

Short-term effects of Secondary Trauma

Children from birth to age 5:

  • Sleep and/or eating disruptions
  • Withdrawal/lack of responsiveness
  • Intense separation anxiety
  • Inconsolable crying
  • Developmental regression, loss of acquired skills
  • Intense anxiety, worries, and/or new fears
  • Increased aggression and/or impulsive behavior

Children from ages 6 to 11:

  • Nightmares, sleep disruptions
  • Aggression and difficulty with peer relationships in school
  • Difficulty with concentration and task completion in school
  • Withdrawal and/or emotional numbing
  • School avoidance and/or truancy

Children from ages 12 to 18:

  • Antisocial behavior
  • School failure
  • Impulsive and/or reckless behavior, e.g.,
    • Substance abuse
    • Running away
    • Involvement in violent or abusive dating relationships
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Withdrawal

Long-term effects of Secondary Trauma

  • Physical health problems
  • PTSD (Post traumatic stress disorder)
  • Problems forming relationships
  • Difficulties with self-regulation
  • Detrimental understanding of power and control in relationships
  • Perpetrating violence in adult relationships
  • Drug and Alcohol Abuse

How to Help a Child with Secondary Trauma

  • Make quality time to be with the child
  • Link the child with friends and activities they enjoy
  • Be a role model; set an example for self care and managing emotions
  • Build calm, stable environments
  • Encourage open conversations about feelings Perpetrating
  • Reach out to community resources


National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-422-4453 or

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network:

The Child Mind Institute:

Promising Futures:

The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 or