Violence in the Family

Parents are a child's first and most powerful role models. From a very early age children mimic what they see their parents say and do. A young girl will want to brush her hair — just like mom. She will want to talk on her pretend phone, play with her pretend baby, and cook with her plastic food — just like mom. A young boy will want to shave his face — just like dad. He will want to help shovel the snow, fix the car, and mow the lawn — just like dad.

Most parents think this behavior is cute and will reinforce it with comments like, “Look at you taking care of your baby doll! You're such a good mommy!” and “What a big, strong boy you are! You will be a great dad someday!”

But what if what the little girl sees is mommy yelling at the bank teller, insulting the grocery clerk, and badmouthing the other moms in the playgroup? And what if the young boy sees his father berating his mother, insulting the dinner she's made, and tossing his fork across the room after he pronounces the evening meal disgusting and inedible? What if these kids witness more severe forms of domestic violence? What then?

Can you really be surprised or shocked when the little girl becomes a playground terror, bossing around other kids and pushing them down when they don't cooperate? Or when the boy insults the artwork of a classmate, rips it into tiny pieces, and tosses it in the air, saying, “The only thing this is good for is confetti.” These kids have learned, by watching their parents, that violence is normal and it's acceptable to use it on others, including their peers.

Researchers in the United States are finding connections between violence at home and aggressive bullying behavior in school. One of the first studies to specifically examine the link between exposure to domestic violence and involvement in bullying was conducted by the University of Washington and Indiana University. Researchers there found that children who were exposed to violence in the home engaged in higher levels of physical bullying than children reared in nonviolent homes.

Social Learning Theory

One possible explanation for this link between witnessing and repeating certain behaviors is called social learning theory, which was originally proposed by Albert Bandura, renowned researcher on human behavior. Bandura conducted hundreds of studies, but one study stands out — the Bobo doll experiment.

Bandura made a film of a woman beating up a Bobo doll (a Bobo doll is an inflatable, oval, blow-up clown doll with a weighted bottom that allows it to bob back up after you knock it down). Bandura showed the film to a group of kindergartners, who saw the woman punch, hit, and smack the Bobo doll with a plastic hammer. Bandura then placed a Bobo doll in the kindergarteners' normal play area and they were then let out to play.

The observers saw the kids beating up the Bobo doll. They punched, kicked, and hit the Bobo with little hammers. They yelled, “Sockeroo!” just like the woman in the film did while she was attacking the Bobo doll. Essentially, the kindergartners imitated exactly what the woman had done in the film.


In a follow-up study, Bandura found that when children observed the woman in the film being punished for her aggressive behavior toward the Bobo doll, they were less likely to act aggressively toward the Bobo doll. Bandura also found that there was no difference in children who saw the woman rewarded for acting aggressively or receiving no reward.

This experiment was repeated with many variations, yet always yielded similar results. Bandura eventually called the Bobo doll phenomenon observational learning or modeling, and he labeled the theory social learning. Social learning theory simply means people learn new information and behaviors by watching other people.

The girl who is in the car when her mother spews mean-spirited gossip about a neighbor will learn that it's okay to trash talk her friends. And the boy who sees his father shove and slap his mother will see nothing wrong with shoving and slapping the annoying boy who rides the bus with him. In simplest terms, it's a monkey see, monkey do situation.

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is defined as physical, sexual, psychological, or financial abuse that occurs between adults involved in an intimate relationship, and is usually characterized by long-term patterns of abusive behavior and control. Each year the millions of children who bear witness to the domestic abuse of one or more of their parents are left with deep emotional and psychological scars. They may suffer from:

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Aggressive behavior

  • Conduct problems

  • Impaired concentration and school performance

  • Physical ailments (headaches, stomach aches, sleep disturbances)

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

Child abuse experts have long been lobbying to include exposure to domestic violence as a form of child abuse in and of itself, mainly because of the negative effects on a child's emotional, social, and cognitive development. Adding to the violence is the fact that approximately half of the men who batter their wives also abuse their children.


According to a federal study done in 2000, it is estimated that between 3.3 and 10 million children witness domestic violence annually. Domestic violence is the most common unreported crime in America today and it occurs in families from all social, cultural, religious, educational, and economic backgrounds.

Child Abuse

Each year, there are 3 million reports of child abuse and neglect made in the United States, and hundreds of children die every year as the direct result of being abused. Children are abused by their parents for a number of reasons. The most prevalent are:

  • Unrealistic expectations: If the parent lacks sufficient knowledge of child behavior and development, she will set unrealistic and unattainable goals for her child.

  • Prior abuse: If the parent was abused as a child, he may now lack the appropriate skills for successful nonviolent parenting.

  • Alcohol or substance abuse: If the parent engages in substance abuse to such a degree that it contributes to violent behavior, it often leads to child abuse.

  • Financial pressures: If the family lives in chronic poverty or experiences a sudden loss of financial stability, it can lead to domestic violence and child abuse.

Abuse impairs a child's ability to develop healthy and trusting relationships with family members. Families are supposed to provide children with warmth and nurturing, emotional support, unconditional love, and a sense of belonging. Families are supposed to guide and teach children proper social behavior and help them develop an internal code of conduct that will serve them well in later life. And families are supposed to protect their young and shield them from harm.

Unfortunately, some families beat and berate, slap and scold, injure and insult their children. And those children learn that physical and verbal abuse are the right way to do things. They think, “If this is how Dad gets his way, then it should be how I get my way, too.” Remember the study of kids who were bullies? Ninety-seven percent reported having been prior victims of abuse. That's an overwhelming statistic; but, in all fairness, not all kids who are abused act aggressively or become bullies.


Child abuse and neglect includes the physical or mental injury, sexual abuse, negligent treatment, or maltreatment of any child under the age of 18 by a person who is responsible for the child's welfare under circumstances that indicate the child's health or welfare is harmed or threatened.

In normal families there are conflicts and disagreements, arguments and spats, misunderstandings and hurt feelings; these things are a part of life. And learning how to deal with normal levels of conflict can build a child's self-esteem and social competence. But when a child witnesses abuse and cruelty or suffers at the hands of an abusive parent, he learns that the world is cold, uncaring, and unsafe. He feels helpless and alone and will sometimes channel all the anger and aggression he feels toward his abusers onto his own victims.

When an abused child abuses (or bullies) another child, he feels powerful in a way he doesn't at home. The abused child wants his victim to suffer the same way he did. He wants him to feel small, unloved, and worthless. And this is how the cycle of violence is perpetuated.

The next time a bully pushes your child to the ground and demands to be the first kid on the bus, you might reflect for a moment on how that kid came to be a bully. Perhaps he isn't an eight-year-old monster without feelings or humanity. Perhaps he is a victim, too. That's not to say his behavior is acceptable — it is not — but that bully may only be emulating conduct that he has seen, or suffered, at home.

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