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May 27, 2022
by Elizabeth Pratt

Adults Exposed To Parental Domestic Violence As Children More Likely To Develop Mental Illness

May 27, 2022 08:00 by Elizabeth Pratt  [About the Author]

More than 20% of adults who were exposed to chronic levels of parental domestic violence in childhood develop major depressive disorder at some stage. 

Researchers from the University of Toronto found that 22.5% of adults who witnessed domestic violence between parents later developed major depressive disorder, compared with 9.1% of those who hadn’t witnessed parental domestic violence as children. 

“Individuals who had been exposed to parental domestic violence have an increased risk of developing depression and anxiety disorders at some point in their life,” Esme Fuller-Thomson, author of the study and Director of University of Toronto’s Institute for Life Course and Aging at the University of Toronto and Professor at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work (FIFSW) told Theravive. 

Along with depressive disorders, those who witnessed parental domestic violence (PDV) also experience anxiety. 

“One in six adults (15.2%) who had experienced chronic PDV reported that they later developed an anxiety disorder. Only 7.1% of those who had not been exposed to parental violence also reported experiencing an anxiety disorder at some point in their life,” Fuller-Thomson said. 

The researchers say their work highlights the long-term negative outcome for children who witness chronic domestic violence, even if they themselves were not abused as children. 

In undertaking their study, the researchers examined data from more than 17 thousand respondents in the Canadian Community Health Survey. 326 people reported in the survey they had witnessed parental domestic violence more than 10 times in total before they were the age of 16. This is considered chronic parental domestic violence. 

Typically, parental domestic violence can happen alongside other adverse events like childhood sexual abuse or childhood physical abuse. 

This can make it challenging to examine the impact of solely witnessing parental domestic violence, without other forms of abuse. 

The authors excluded anyone from the study who had experienced abuse and who also witnessed domestic violence between parents. 

They found that 26.8% of adults who were witness to domestic violence between parents as children went on to develop substance use disorders. By comparison, 19.2% of those who weren’t exposed to PDV developed substance use. 

The study did have some limitations. The health survey used as part of the study does not detail how long parental domestic violence occurred for, the relationship the respondent to the survey had to the person who was violent, or details regarding the severity of violence witnessed.

The authors say more research is needed in this area.

As well as depression, anxiety and substance use disorder, the authors say those who witness PDV in childhood can also experience other problems later in life.

They may feel constantly anxious or vigilant or they may worry that any conflict will escalate into an assault.

Despite this, there were positive findings of the study for those who experienced PDV as children.

The researchers found that more than three in five adults who witnessed chronic PDV had excellent mental health and didn’t have mental illness, suicidal thoughts or dependence on substances in the previous year. 

They also reported being satisfied or happy with their life and, despite being exposed to traumatic experiences as children, reported high levels of psychological wellbeing and social wellbeing. 

The researchers say this emphasises the importance of social support for those who experienced such adversity in childhood.

“Cognitive behavioral therapy is effective for depression and anxiety in children and adults. Children need to be nurtured in violence free environments.  Parental domestic violence casts a long shadow,” Fuller-Thomas said. 

Going forward, Fuller-Thomas hopes to expand the research to examine other long-term outcomes of exposure to PDV, including other health consequences.

 “I would like to explore whether those exposed to chronic parental domestic violence are also more vulnerable to chronic physical health problems such as cancer and heart disease,” she said.




About the Author

Elizabeth Pratt

Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald,, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.

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