Bystander Victims: Facing The Trauma Of Children Who Witness Domestic Violence

Children who live amid domestic abuse are at serious risk of long-term physical and mental health problems. It’s imperative we start to look deeply at these long-term effects because violence is passed down from generation to generation. A close-up investigation from Romania.

This story was first published in English by Worldcrunch.
Read a version in Romanian here.

“This morning, she was laughing when she told me that her tummy hurts, that her head hurts, that she feels sick.” Irina, a 34-year-old mother, tells me as I sit down on the living room couch in her apartment on the outskirts of Brasov in central Romania. 

She tells me about her daughter, who is in her bedroom reading an Isadora Moon book, about a half-fairy, half-vampire girl. I can feel the girl’s presence through the tiny plasticine figurines around the house: dandelions, bunnies, flowers modeled in as much detail as only an eight-year-old can. 

On Irina’s arm, I can see a black tree tattoo, with a winding stem and vigorous, almost frightening, roots. Behind it, there is a sunset in strong shades of red and green. It’s the tree of life, a tattoo Irina got this year to remind her that life has been hard for her in recent years, but she is still standing. 

She’s a woman who has experienced domestic violence and, six years ago, managed to get out of her abusive relationship with Maria’s father. (The names of the children and mothers in the article are pseudonyms and I have used them to protect their identities.) 

I came to visit them because Irina is currently looking for answers to a question that interests me too. I’m a reporter who has been documenting the impact of domestic violence for the last eight years. Irina wonders to what extent the violent incidents her daughter witnessed as a child affect and will affect her emotional and physical health.

A few weeks ago, Maria fainted suddenly while playing at a friend’s house. It wasn’t the first time. Two years ago, and again one year later, she went through similar episodes. But medical tests — blood tests, brain scans — came back normal. It’s just that this third episode has made Irina wonder if Maria’s fragility and the tense moments in their mother-child relationship are the effects of the years of domestic violence. Perhaps her daughter also experienced post-traumatic stress disorder witnessing her father’s outbursts, even though she was just a baby at the time.

Violence passed down from generation to generation

We don’t talk enough about children witnessing domestic violence. I’ve always felt they were ghosts in my interviews with surviving mothers and I portrayed them as such in the stories I’ve written. But I’ll never forget their glances.

The way in which exposure to domestic violence shapes children should be our job as adults, through our role as advocates for these small people who can’t speak up and say what hurts them.

At night they hide in blankets and, when the screaming and banging in the house escalates, they hold their breath for a few seconds. They fall asleep with difficulty, in muffled cries and stuffy noses. Others call the police to save their mothers. They see them bloodied and frightened, returning home from the hospital as if nothing had happened. They come out to play in fear, holding their mothers’ hands tightly and asking them to watch their step. They return from school to homes where they should find warmth and love, but never know if disaster and aggression await them. 

They may be your neighbors’ children, your children’s kindergarten or schoolmates, your co-workers’ children, the children you teach and who live in a constant state of fear. 

We’ve lived for too long with the assumption that little ones forget. As a society, we’ve believed that they can’t comprehend the danger of a violent incident or, even worse, that they naturally recover from exposure to trauma because they are simply resilient. The assumption was wrong, as many studies over the last 20 years have shown. And we need to talk about it, because otherwise we perpetuate violence against children. Because violence is socially learned and passed on from generation to generation.

The beginnings of abuse

When she gave birth to Maria, Irina had been in a relationship for three years with a partner who was 13 years older than herself — a man she felt safe with. At times, the man had bouts of jealousy, which Irina paid little attention to. 

After Maria was born and they moved into the same house together, the man began to abuse her. He would get upset over little things, swear at her and push her. During these fights, he would hit things around the house with anything he could get his hands on. One day, he punched a light switch. It happened in the afternoon, when he came home from his driving job, and as he was emptying bottles of beer and wine, one after the other. 

Maria was a baby then, so every time there was a fight, she was either in her mother’s arms or somewhere on the floor, playing or learning to walk around the house. „All the bouts of rage happened in her presence,” Irina recalls. 

It had been a year since she had been living in tension and unpredictability. One day, her partner criticised her for buying rotten tomatoes at the market. „Was the salesman handsome and you looked at him instead of the tomatoes?” Irina remembers him asking her. She felt as if he wasn’t her partner, but one of the abusive parents she’d heard about in school, from classmates who got beaten up when they didn’t do their homework. 

When her husband was shouting and calling Irina to account for the rotten tomatoes, Maria stood up. She got between her parents and started screaming. Her mother thought of telling her that it was nothing serious, just adult play. „Seeing me calm, she calmed down too.” That’s how the conflict ended that night. But it remains a memory that Irina revisits when she thinks about the tense environment in which Maria grew up. 

A year later, after her husband gave her first slap, Irina decided to leave. Fear never left her. She didn’t call the police, because she feared that „by the time the police came, I wouldn’t be [alive] anymore.” But she planned her packing and left in the dark at 3a.m. with the baby in her arms. For a while they stayed with her mother. But for a few months the man wouldn’t leave them alone and would yell at their door at night. After Irina got a restraining order in court, things calmed down and a divorce followed.

The effects of exposure to violence

In a family, violence is not something that happens once or ends overnight. Victims try to leave abusive relationships up to seven times before they can really put a stop to it. It’s an emotionally draining process that can take decades. Only in lucky cases, like Irina’s, is it over within two years. 

This means that often the years of abuse in a relationship coincide with the most important time in a young child’s life — early childhood, when they learn the most, cognitively, emotionally, socially. They begin to walk, talk, count, relate to other children and adults. (Studies also show that domestic violence is more likely to occur in families with young children than in those with school-age children.)

In early childhood, from 0 to 6 years old, children are aware of everything that happens around them, especially in their relationships with the most important adults in their lives: their parents. 

Diana Vasile, a psychotherapist and president of the Institute for the Study and Treatment of Trauma, explains: “The child’s psychological system registers every trace of tension precisely in order to try to resolve it. It happens as early as in the womb, when we move to find a more comfortable position in the mother’s womb. Babies cry to find solutions when they want to eat, fall asleep or be changed.” 

When toddlers hear screaming around them, see tension on their parents’ faces, they learn to live in constant fear. This constant fear produces changes in the parts of the brain that are involved in processing it. American psychiatrist Charles Zeanah, who has researched the effects of abuse, neglect and exposure to violence on children, says the fear detector in the brain, the amygdala, „becomes over-activated and begins to respond in other non-threatening life situations as well, and that’s post-traumatic stress.”

This post-traumatic stress experienced by children raised in domestic violence, experts say, is a state of hypervigilance similar to what is experienced by war veterans. 

Developing under stress leaves its mark. Sometimes children grow less or have difficulty eating, don’t sleep well, find it harder to relax and can fall behind on many acquisitions, whether physical, verbal or intellectual. „Children who go through this are more fragile in terms of physical and mental health,” says Vasile. 

Since the 1990s, researchers have shown that exposure to domestic violence — like physical or sexual abuse or other traumatic events — is part of the category of adverse childhood experiences known as ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences). These can later cause chronic physical and mental health problems that emerge in adolescence or adulthood. That’s why international researchers recommend that paediatricians and family doctors document possible traumatic events in children’s lives and apply the ACE test to physical problems such as sleep and eating problems.

Young children don’t have many solutions to cope with traumatic experiences, says Vasile. They can hide, they can get between parents, they can scream. But the level of helplessness and mental tension is profoundly felt in their bodies and „these experiences set the ground for the reorientation of the self-regulatory mechanisms that help us maintain our physical and mental health. And that’s when we go into emergency mechanisms. To stop feeling that mental tension, we numb ourselves, we disconnect from ourselves. This is what we psychologists call trauma and early traumatisation.”

After the divorce, Irina shared custody of the child with her ex-partner for almost a year. Yet, after finding out that the man was still drinking too much, she asked the court for sole custody and got it. From her interaction with her father, the girl only remembers him teaching her to climb. 

Life as a single mother hasn’t been easy for Irina. She believes she tended to overprotect her daughter. Back when they lived in abuse and screams, the hugs and affection she offered her baby were Irina’s fuel. „I was very attached to her, she was everything to me, I was thinking like that to move on.” 

Maybe that’s why, she says, she always felt that her baby was fragile. While she was in day care, she would refuse to eat until the afternoon, 4 to 5 p.m., when her mother would take her home. For Irina, it’s a challenge even now to get her daughter to try vegetables. She offers her soup by the sieve. Pasta or mashed potatoes, however, never fail.

Emotional support for children

Irina has always wondered if her daughter’s frailty and eating problems are caused by the parental tension she witnessed when she was so young. Sometimes, she answered herself, thinking that Maria had just turned two when they ran away from home, so maybe she didn’t realise what was going on. 

Stuck with divorce and custody proceedings, Irina couldn’t find time to talk to anyone about it. Then came the pandemic, at an overwhelming pace for a single mother. Around the same time, her mother, who was still helping her with Maria, became ill with cancer. She was on cytostatic and now she needed her daughter’s help. 

Irina worked from home as an engineer for an automotive company, and Maria had started online school. Like any child in the pandemic, stuck in the house, she was always asking her mother for something. With endless online meetings and times when she needed to concentrate, Irina couldn’t always cope with the unstoppable „mummy, mummy, mummy”. One day, when her strength was gone, she locked Maria in her bedroom. The little girl banged her hands and feet on the door and screamed. „I was talking to her and she was screaming and couldn’t hear what I was saying.” 

The mother then lost her patience and slapped Maria, and the little girl slapped her mom too. Irina knew she had done something wrong and felt guilty. She realised she had become an abuser herself, something she immediately wanted to stop. „It’s not the child’s fault that I’m at work, that she wants something badly, that I’m tired.” 

She learned about an emotional support program for mothers and children who witness violence and decided to participate. She wanted to relearn patience in her relationship with her daughter and learn more about the effects of her exposure to tension in the family. 

The psychotherapist they worked with helped her learn to respond to her daughter with more patience, even when her nerves are stretched to the max; to breathe and count so she doesn’t react with anger in the heat of the moment. The psychologist told her that sometimes children get adults’ attention — by deciding not to eat anything or insisting on always being with their parents — because they feel emotions they don’t recognize and can’t express.

Supporting children when the system fails

The pilot programme Irina was in was created by Liliana Ștefănescu-Goangă, a lawyer with 20 years’ experience in domestic violence cases, together with three psychotherapists. The lawyer saw how emotionally affected were the children accompanying their mothers to her office to talk about restraining orders. And she had witnessed her father’s violence, so she knew how heartbreaking the stress of dealing with tension at home can be. 

Between 2020 and 2022, 23 mothers and 40 children each received a minimum of 10 sessions of psychological support, with funding secured through a crowdfunding facilitated by a local NGO. 

Many mothers, survivors of domestic violence, are overwhelmed after leaving abusive relationships. They go through painful divorce trials, live with repressed anger and lack of self-confidence while having to raise their children alone. Mihaela Forgaciu, one of the psychotherapists in the programme, says that in such situations, women can themselves start abusing. Many have come to her sessions and told her they want to learn how to stop raising their voices and criticising their children.

Most of the children the psychotherapist worked with in the project were over 5-6 years old, but had been exposed to violence shortly after birth. She witnessed their hypervigilance: how they keenly observe the moods of the adults around them and adjust their behaviour according to their reactions. They are quiet, well-behaved children, they even seem submissive and don’t go off the parent’s word.

„Children who grow up in families where there is verbal or physical violence against their mother,” says Anamaria Vid-Pop, a psychologist at Hope and Homes for Children (HHC), “think this is normal.” If mothers don’t react and even excuse perpetrators, telling children that „it’s not daddy’s fault, he was just angry, we’re moving on because he’s daddy and we love him and he loves us,” children end up asking: is love a slap in the face? 

And if we shape their thinking that way, Pop adds, the chances increase that these children will offer or accept such love. „These are behaviours picked up by learning, by modelling, from the adults around them.”

Two years ago, HHC also had a support programme for 41 child witnesses in three cities. Interventions focused on removing the abuser by finding alternative accommodation for mothers and children and covering rent and monthly needs. 

Such NGO programs are drops in the ocean and do not reach all children. Pop says the state should provide long-term therapeutic support, ideally through the already existing circuit of family doctors. An emotional health problem such as domestic violence should be addressed through a family health programme. 

Especially in vulnerable areas, in villages or even small towns, the state could build such programmes into community mental health centres. At the moment, there are 79 centers (for adults and children) nationwide, located only in towns, far from vulnerable communities and completely unknown publicly. This is insufficient. In these places, says Pop, there should be „psychologists specialising in trauma therapy to help mothers and children going through various situations of violence with psychotherapy and parental counselling.” Living in a society that tells us that young children don’t hear or see or understand, educating parents about the effects of domestic violence on their children is an essential component. 

The effects of children’s exposure to domestic violence

The truth is that the authorities — police and social welfare — have no common statistics on the number of children exposed to domestic violence each year.

Last year, the General Inspectorate of the Romanian Police counted 68,000 incidents of domestic violence, but we don’t know how many of these were witnessed by children. Moreover, these figures are much lower than the reality on the ground, as they only count reported cases. The National Agency for Equal Opportunities, the authority dealing with domestic violence, claims that between 2017 and 2021, 51,575 children, victims of domestic violence, received various social services in public institutions all over the country. (However, this statistic includes directly abused children, not just witnesses, as the authorities do not collect data separately.) 

So we are certainly talking about tens of thousands of children; maybe even hundreds of thousands. 

The country’s Agencies for Social Welfare and Child Protection, often bureaucratic and unreformed institutions, offer counselling services more to child witnesses whose mothers have taken refuge in shelters for victims. They have no systemic plans for long-term psychological support for those exposed to violence in families.

In addition, children in Romania are not allowed to undergo psychotherapy unless both parents give written consent if they have joint custody. And children exposed to domestic violence are not exempt from the rule, even if one of the parents who must give consent was the perpetrator. 

„In theory, support programmes for child witnesses are a priority,” says Camelia Proca, director of A.L.E.G, which for four years has run a national network of support for survivors of violence. „In practice, we rarely work with them in psychological intervention, and the way we work differs from one county to another. There are social agencies where even in emergency shelters children do not receive therapy or other specialised interventions to help them process the violence they have witnessed or learn healthy coping mechanisms.” 

Proca says there is a need for training in domestic violence for public service psychologists, right out of college, and further specialisation. This is because „we are talking about services that should be free and accessible to any child in need, no matter where they live in Romania”.

Building a better life — but not overnight

The need for information that Proca speaks of reminds me of Elena, a 6-year-old girl, and her 8-year-old brother Ionuț, who, in January 2021, saw their father stick a knife in their mother’s leg at a playground in Alexandria, a city in the south of Romania. 

The little girl saw the blood flowing, cried, and waited for the ambulance. She felt fear for months, especially on the rare times her mother left the house alone. She still feels fear now, two years after the incident, not separated from her mother. She tells her a vehement „no” every time the woman, who also grew up in violence, tries to persuade her to play again at the scene of the incident. 

Elena has twice been to counselling at the social public agency in her town. The mother, who accompanied her, says that the counsellors explained to the child that the father did not want to hurt her as well. Her brother, who witnessed the same incident, has been living with the abuser-father ever since, and neither justice nor social assistance could prevent this situation, even though it goes against the principles of healthy intervention, which states that children should not be left in the care of abusive parents.

I was reminded of the fear in this little girl’s eyes when I interviewed Monica, a 22-year-old girl who at the age of 5 had a similar experience to Elena’s. She saw her mother being abused and the police detaining her father. It happened in the early 2000s in Alcalá de Henares, a town near Madrid. They couldn’t make ends meet living in a village in the south of Romania, where the mother was a teacher and the father had lost his job, so they went to Spain to build a better life. 

But the good life didn’t happen overnight. On the contrary, in the evenings the flat was filled with the father’s anger, swearing and hitting the mother. „The circus was starting,” Monica recalls. The mother called the police several times, and the father received two restraining orders and twice spent a night in custody. 

One night, when she heard a loud noise, as if something had fallen, Monica came out of the room and saw her father trying to strangle her mother. „It was the most painful moment,” she says.

The second memory dates back to a day of trying to run away — the days where her mother tried to leave him. The father had been fired from work and was drunk, „in a pretty critical condition.” When he went to the toilet, the mother locked him in there. And then, in a hurry, she took her children and the three of them left in slippers, taking refuge with Romanian friends in town. 

When the father raised his hand to hit one of the children, the mother didn’t give him another chance. After her parents’ divorce, the fear she felt every time they met drove Monica away from him. She often refused to talk to him on the phone, but the phone kept ringing. Sometimes at night, waking them up, more often than not with a ruckus. In these conversations, the father would reproach Monica that the two of them, the children, were not his and he would curse the mother. At about 15, after one such Christmas phone call, she wrote how she felt in the form of a letter, addressed to her future children: 

„I imagine myself 20 years from now at this exact moment, feeling anything but what I feel now. I hope that none of my actions will be too much regretted then, and I also hope that the beautiful picture I now have in my mind will be true – a beautiful and warm family where the parents are both normal. I’m finding it harder and harder to stand my father and he seems to intentionally ruin these moments. It’s painful how now I feel nothing but an idiotic combination of anger and disgust taken to the level of carelessness as a means of hiding it.” 

A few hours after writing this in her diary, Monica covered it with a clear Christmas-themed wrap. She was ashamed of what she had written, ashamed of the anger she felt toward her father.

Today, she lives in Bucharest, works for an NGO and is in a relationship. She likes to dig through family stories in conversations with her mother. Therapy has been a goal on her list for several years and she hopes to find the courage to start it soon. 

Looking back, Monica says that as a child, she would have needed a specialized person to help her deal with „the anger, the anxiety, and especially the responsibility I took on myself, voluntarily or involuntarily — to be a support for my mother, to be a parent to my brother, to take care of the feelings and quirks of the family on my father’s side.”

What solutions are there?

„If parents can’t protect their children from domestic violence, the state will tell the parent that it will protect them,” Raluca Socaciu, a Romanian lawyer who works in the same Spanish town where Monica lived, told me.

Socaciu is a public defender in cases of gender violence in the Madrid community and defends victims and perpetrators whenever necessary. 90% of domestic violence cases in the Madrid community, she says, happen in Romanian immigrant families. On average, every day there are five such cases of violence. 

For Romania, Spain is a model country in the fight against gender violence. Just as it has special courts for such cases, it also has specialized gender violence counsellors in public social services, who provide long-term psychological support for child witnesses and their mothers. Here, domestic violence cases go ahead in court, even if victims withdraw their complaints; perpetrators get restraining orders that can last up to two years; some of these cases are monitored by electronic bracelets, and perpetrators are arrested and sentenced much more quickly.

In cases of serious physical violence or where protection orders are breached, offenders are jailed for several months or a year. 

Spain is also held up as an example of good practice by GREVIO, the Council of Europe’s expert group that assesses how countries fulfil their obligations under the Istanbul Convention, the most important international treaty to prevent and combat violence against women and domestic violence. 

Spain recently amended an article in its Civil Code that excludes the obligation for both parents to give their consent to psychological counselling for children who have experienced domestic violence, as witnesses or direct victims. 

Diana Díaz, a psychologist at Spain’s Anar Foundation, which helps children at risk of abuse, says the change has had another positive effect. Judges specialising in gender violence have realised how important psychological counselling is for child witnesses and have started requiring it as mandatory in their sentences. 

In 2011, Romania also amended Law 217/2003 on preventing and combating domestic violence so that child witnesses are also considered victims by the state, as required by the Convention. However, this year GREVIO experts warned in their evaluation report that in Romania it is not clear whether the authorities help children who witness domestic violence and whether the services offered to children are tailored to their needs and developmental stages. They recommended that Romania research and understand the phenomenon more.

Yes, there is a need for information so that all those who care for children having experienced traumatic experiences know how they can best care for them, what to look out for, where to go for help. We need the authorities — from the government to social workers, psychologists and judges — to understand that violence is perpetuated if we do not help adults look at child victims as well. 

All about love

Irina understood that answers will come every day if she stays close to her daughter. The fainting spells, which have recurred over the past few years, have received a medical response – a neurologist told her that her daughter has a neurological predisposition to such episodes. It’s important not to stand up too much and to be careful in stressful situations. 

Last summer, Irina asked her if she was afraid she would ever leave her, and the little girl said yes. She assured her that would never happen. But the daughter’s response made her realize that more talk was needed about the difficult past they share.

Irina now has a drawing of the two of them embracing tattooed on her other arm. They sit forehead to forehead and look eye to eye. Above them sits a red balloon with her daughter’s name written on it. She plans a new psychotherapy process for Maria, where she hopes to learn more as a mother about what she can do next. Because sometimes the love we give our children is not enough.

As activist bell hooks says in the book All about Love, that when we love children, we understand, through all the actions we take, that they are not our property, that they have rights, and that we respect and defend them. 

We have laws that help us; Romania even has its first Family Ministry, but in reality we lack a lot, especially the political will and even the will in the day-to-day bureaucracy so that combating domestic violence is a priority for those who decide where we go as a society. And are politicians and authorities capable of protecting children from what happens to them at home? Are we all ready to start a debate about this?

The documentation for this article was supported by Early Childhood Global Reporting fellowship from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.