After I was arrested for domestic violence, I focused mostly on understanding how my actions were affecting my wife and my relationship with her. What I didn’t realize—and was stunned when I learned—was how my behavior was hurting my kids, too. I loved my children and harming them was the last thing I wanted to do. That prompted me to learn how domestic violence affects children and to see how I could best repair the damage I’d done.

I know that many individuals who are working to stop behavior that hurts their partner are also parents. And I know that every one of those moms and dads, like me, loves their kids and wants the best for them. Protecting our offspring adds to the list of reasons for change and increases our determination to make it happen.

How domestic violence affects children

Researchers have found that children exposed to domestic violence may struggle at home, at school, or in the community. You may notice an increase in fear, anger, clinginess, difficulty sleeping, or tantrums. Long-term exposure to violence or heated conflicts can cause more serious problems like depression or anxiety, skipping school, or using drugs. Even if a child does not show signs of stress now, it may show up later in their life.

That’s just the impact of their exposure, however. The same core hurts that create harmful reactions toward our significant other will also trigger poor responses to our kids. This how we can physically or emotionally wound them directly, even when we don’t intend to.

Our youngsters will push our buttons, just like our partners. When they do, it can set off a chain reaction of uncomfortable thoughts that lead to powerful emotions that cause bad behavior. Healing our hurts, disconnecting those buttons, and developing better emotional control will help us be a better partner and parent.

My fear of not being good enough myself caused me to push my children beyond normal, age-appropriate expectations. My distorted and unhealthy thinking believed that their success or failure was a reflection of me. As a result, I was entirely too demanding: yelling, verbally berating them, or spanking them when I was angry. These actions were not healthy discipline; they were destructive and unnecessary trauma for my kids.

Potential relationship damage

Violence or abusive interactions in our homes can ruin our connection with our children. I not only didn’t want to hurt my kids physically or emotionally, but selfishly, I didn’t want to jeopardize my relationship with them either. That loss would have devastated me. Here are some ways of how domestic violence affects children and our relationship with them:

  • They are afraid of you
  • They run away when you try to show them affection
  • They withhold information about their lives
  • They don’t ask for help or support
  • They don’t talk freely
  • They’re not able to have fun with you because they are afraid of what might happen
  • They lie to protect themselves or their other parent
  • They use violence against you
  • They do not respect you

My 16-year-old daughter bailed me out of jail, but recently she told me that she was on the verge of loosing all respect for me. Younger children are more likely to still act like they want to be around us. However, they’ll likely make a different decision as they get older and move into adulthood. I can’t bear to think of the loss that would have been if I had continued on my same path.

Repairing your relationship with your children

Perhaps you haven’t yet noticed any of these symptoms in your kids yet. Remember, how domestic violence affects children can be delayed for months or years. Or maybe some of the signs are already showing up. Either way, there are things you can do to stop the damage and make your future relationship better:

  • Change abusive behavior. It is important that all forms of abuse stop. Develop better emotional control as quickly as possible. The more time and focus you give your change process, the faster you get results.
  • Model constructive behavior. Children learn by example, so one of the best things you can do for your kids is to model positive behaviors. Treat them with kindness and dignity, even when they mess up, and even if your parents did not treat you that way. Support and respect their other parent.
  • Don’t deny, blame, or justify bad behavior. Take full responsibility for your past actions. Follow through with real and permanent change. This is the best way to earn back their respect. Your children will learn accountability from you as a result.
  • Accept the consequences for what’s happened. You may face legal trouble, lose the relationship with your partner, have limited contact with your children, or experience damaged trust from your kids. None of these are fun or desired. Accepting these consequences, at least temporarily, demonstrates character—again something that they will notice and learn from.
  • Acknowledge the damage. I know hurting your children was unintentional, but let them know that you now understand specifically how you did. Listen and accept their anger, hurt, sadness, fear, and rejection. It’s part of the healing process and not something your children are doing to manipulate you.
  • Don’t force the process or try to move on too quickly. Actions should take place on the children’s terms and timing, not yours. Be patient—try not to push healing or force contact with your children. Be open to talking about the past as many times as they need to. Apologize, but don’t demand or expect forgiveness.

Hope for the future

No matter how domestic violence has affected your children and whatever the state is of your relationship, there is hope. The changes you make can earn back their respect and the closeness we all hope to have with our progeny. Think about this as a long-term project, not a quick fix. Trust requires time and consistency to rebuild, so be patient.

Today, fourteen years after my arrests for domestic violence, I have a great relationship with my two, now adult kids. Neither sugarcoats how my behavior affected them or how hurt and angry they were at the time. However, they both respect me for how hard I worked to figure out what caused my actions and to gain the emotional control I needed.

They have also experienced that my interactions with them are far different than they were in the past. I hope and pray that the cycle of domestic violence and abuse that was passed down to me stops here. That’s an outcome we should all strive to achieve.

In what ways have you noticed that domestic violence has affected your children? What have you done to make things better? We’d like to hear from you.

Faith note

Did you know God is the perfect parent? Like an ideal parent does, he loves you and me unconditionally. He may not like everything we do because he knows that some things are not good for us. But that doesn’t change his love for us.

He is patient as we try, fail, and try again. No matter how badly or how often we mess up, it doesn’t stop him from loving you and me. Even when we reject him, he still wants a relationship with us and will welcome us back when we return to him.

God is infinitely wise, so his guidance is always good. He gives us this direction because he wants us to enjoy a full, abundant, and rewarding life. By following his counsel, we start to live like the person he designed us to be. Every invention, every creation functions best when it operates as it was intended.

When we think about God as the perfect parent, then it’s easy to see he is also the perfect model for parenting. I’m never going to reach God’s level of perfection with regard to unconditional love, infinite patience, or fantastic guidance. However, the closer I try to follow his example, the better parent I become.

If you don’t already know God and have a relationship with him, I encourage you to check it out by inviting him into your life. Even if your earthly parents were less than ideal, God your creator and spiritual father is a different kind of parent. I hope you will experience his love, grace, and guidance, and that in turn, you will share those gifts with your children.