Effects on Children Witnessing Abuse

Effects on Children Witnessing Abuse

In Canada, it is estimated that each year 800,000 children are exposed to a woman being abused. When children witness abuse they receive the message that violence is an acceptable way to resolve conflict and therefore a normal part of a relationship.

The impact of witnessing abuse depends on the age and developmental stage of the child, the frequency and severity of the abuse along with the support systems in place for the child.

Children often become victims of physical violence as well. Children are harmed in 10 percent of spousal assaults against women and 4 percent of spousal assaults against men.

Typical long-term effects on children witnessing a woman being abused

Adapted from A handbook for health and social service providers and educators on children exposed to woman abuse/family violence, Ottawa: Health Canada, 1999.

Infants Preschool 5–12 years 12–18 years
Disruption in eating and sleeping routines Poor concentration Low self-esteem Being abused or becoming abusive
Fearful of loud noises Fear Post-traumatic stress disorder Suicidal behaviour
Delays in development Separation anxiety Self-harm Disrespect for females
Excessive crying Frequent illness Bullying Bullying
Physical neglect Hitting, biting Depression Poor peer relationships
Clinging Perfectionism Running away
Anger and aggression Problems in school Feeling over-responsible
Cruelty to animals Inappropriate sexual behaviour Pleasing behaviour
Regressive behaviour Alcohol/drug use Anxiety and tension
Destruction of property


  • In 2004, 7% of women and 6% of men reported having been assaulted by an intimate partner in the previous five years.
  • Almost 30,000 women and dependent children were admitted to Ontario shelters between April 1, 2003 and March 31, 2004.
  • 53% of Ontario women escaping abusive situations were admitted with their children; 65% of these children were under the age of 10.
  • 51% of women and 34% of men who reported to the police that they had been assaulted by their spouse said their children had witnessed the violence; of those, 62% of woman and 49% of men feared for their lives.
  • 16% of women who were victimized by their spouse were sexually assaulted.
  • Almost 45% of women and 19% of men assaulted by a partner suffered physical injuries.
  • 22% of men and women accused of spousal homicide or attempted spousal homicide had a history of police-reported spousal violence.
  • Only 37% of women and 17% of men who were victims of spousal abuse reported it to the police.