A 3-year-old drew this picture when she first arrived at STAND’s emergency shelter.

It’s Halloween today, a time when kids love to don their costumes, eat sweets, and maybe, if they’re feeling brave, get a little spooked at a haunted house or out trick or treating. Today also marks the last day of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which raises awareness of the fact that way too many kids live in fear every day – and not the kind associated with Halloween.

One of the most devastating events a child can face is the trauma experienced by exposure to domestic violence and the violation of safety and security in the home. Children under age five are more likely to live in a household where domestic violence occurs than older children. This is especially alarming given all we know about early brain development in the first five years.

Up to 13 million children a year witness domestic violence in the US every year and between 30 to 60 percent of these children will also be physically or emotionally abused by their parent.  So far this year, there have been five domestic related deaths in Contra Costa County. Last year there were 14, an all-time high. According to STAND for Families Free of Violence, since the start of the economic recession in 2008, the number of calls to its 24-hour Help Line has increased by 45%.

When the attachment between a child and parent is distressed by domestic violence, it can negatively affect how a child develops. Children who witness domestic violence have higher risk of:

      • Increased emotional and behavioral problems, insecurity, and anxiety.
      • Traumatic stress reactions (e.g., sleep disturbances, intensified startle reactions, constant worry about possible danger).
      • Problems with aggression, hyperactivity, and poor school performance.
      • Becoming victims or abusers themselves as adolescents or adults.

When is professional help recommended?

The Safe Start Initiative, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice to provide information about children’s exposure to violence, offers tips for caregivers and child care providers to be aware of which behaviors may indicate the need to recommend a consultation with a pediatrician, family doctor, or a mental health professional:

Infants. Babies grow so rapidly during their first year that “normal” development varies greatly from child to child. However, it may be necessary to seek professional help if the baby shows no curiosity, extreme passivity, lack of response to adults, and constant difficulties sleeping or eating.

Toddlers. Danger signs for toddlers include extended periods of sadness, loss of interest in daily activities, loss of sleep or appetite, and exaggerated fear of being alone. Abrupt changes in behavior, such as hyperactivity, may be another sign of a need for professional guidance.

Preschoolers. Early care providers may consider seeking professional help when preschoolers withdraw from adults, peers, and friends; show reactions of panic; appear depressed or unhappy much of the time; act much younger for an extended period; or constantly misbehave in school in ways that are not typical for the child.

If you know a child that has been exposed to domestic violence or know someone living with domestic violence, there is help available. Click here to connect with local resources.

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