Tips for Teachers: Warning Signs of Children Who Witness Family Violence

Children who witness intimate partner violence can sometimes feel like they have nowhere to turn. They may be silenced by fear, unable to handle or comprehend the complex cycle of violence that they witness on a daily basis. Teachers, the people that school-age children see almost every day, are one line of defense to notice the warning signs of a child who is witnessing intimate partner violence. This blog post is a resource for those teachers and administrators who see these kids Monday-Friday of every week and represent adult role models to these children.

Children present themselves in different ways, so even if you don’t see the following behaviors, that does not mean that other and less common changes in behavior aren’t warning signs. According to the National Center on Domestic & Sexual Violence, the list below shows just some of the warning signs that a child is witnessing intimate partner violence, and it is by no means an exhaustive list:

  • Exhaustion from a lack of sleep
  • Complaints of headaches, aches and pains with no apparent cause
  • Increased aggression or outburst
  • Increased activity level and/or trouble focusing
  • Hyper-vigilance and increased worrying or anxiety.
  • Regression or going back to old/baby-like behaviors
  • Withdrawn
  • Digestive problems
  • Changes in play with other children
  • Low self-esteem

It is also important to know what these children are going through and that not every child’s experience is the same. Children may witness varying forms of intimate partner violence — including verbal, emotional, and/or physical abuse. Any combination of abuse has a direct effect on the child, even if they are not visually witnessing it. Kids often hear and understand more than we think.

Sometimes children are also used as a tool for control over the abused parent. This can be done by creating guilt, threatening to take the child, threatening to harm the child, manipulating the child or using visitation as a way to harass the victim. This list is not exhaustive either, but nonetheless, this manipulation of children to further control a victim can also affect the child.

So what can teachers do to help these kids when they notice that they are exhibiting warning signs of witnessing intimate partner violence at home? Here are some tips from Futures Without Violence:

  • Use classroom literature to show healthy relationships and the negative effects of violence, Futures Without Violence has a manual on using class literature to do just this.
  • Help children build a sense of mastery
  • Help children self-regulate
  • Affirm faith around cultural traditions
  • Work with the child to help reduce their stress throughout the day

A supportive network along with access to healthcare, education, housing and social services will increase positive outcomes for children.  It is also important to support the child’s relationship with the non-offending parent or guardian.  A strong, secure attachment to the non-offending parent or guardian is known to promote resiliency in children exposed to domestic violence.  This is true for any child regardless of their trauma experiences.  By enhancing these supportive factors, and promoting resiliency, educators can increase the positive outcomes for children with any trauma experience.