Children and Violence
Children exposed to domestic violence
In a perfect world, all children would have homes where they are guaranteed safety, access to two loving parents who put the needs of the child first, and the support and nurturing they need. The presence of an abusive individual in the home often radically alters these dynamics. In most homes, the father (or father-figure) is the abusive individual and the mother (or mother-figure) is the non-offending parent. As with any topic related to domestic violence, it is important to remember that the abusive individual is responsible for ways in which children are negatively impacted, and the abusive individual is the only one with the power to change and stop abusive behavior.
Many survivors of domestic violence go to extreme lengths to protect and care for their children, shield their children from the impact of abuse, and many mothers living in violent relationships are caring, attentive parents to their children. In fact, though women living in abusive situations often face additional barriers and stressors in their lives, studies on the parenting of abuse victims shows little differences between the parenting capacities of women who have experienced abuse by their partner and those that have not. Yet we also know that women living with abusive partners face enormous challenges in being the best mothers they can be, due to the ways in which abusive individuals deliberately and intentionally sabotage relationships between mom and the children and the ways in which the abuse negatively impacts mom’s ability to meet her child’s needs.
If you are in a situation where your partner is behaving abusively, you are probably wondering about the impact this reality is having on your children. Each child’s experience with domestic violence is as individual and unique as they are. Some children respond to domestic violence with obvious distress, while others might cope relatively well with violence in the home. There is no formula to determine the impact domestic violence has had on an individual child without taking into account a wide variety of factors, such as their age, coping skills, developmental stage, individual strengths, temperament, the frequency and severity of abuse, their relationship with the abusive individual, the child’s understanding and interpretation of abusive events, their individual support system, the presence of supportive and caring adults in their lives, and many other unique characteristics of your child and their environment. Even children growing up in the same home can have vastly different reactions to the same event. It is important to take each child’s unique reality into account when thinking about the ways in which domestic violence has impacted the child.
Children are changed by their experiences with domestic violence, some in subtle ways and some in ways that cause concern for parents, teachers, advocates, and adults in a child’s life. We do know that many children who grow up with the presence of an abuser in their home are indistinguishable from their peers who grow up in non-abusive households. Yet some children are impacted in more profound ways, as their sense of self, their relationships with others, their school performance, and their behaviors are negatively affected because of violence in the home. When a person is abusive to their family members, this often threatens a child’s sense that the family is a safe and nurturing place, and is extremely confusing to children who love both the abusive individual and the other parent. Living with an abusive parent can have many negative consequences for children, including the ways in which it impacts their behaviors, thoughts and feelings. Some examples might include:
Ways in which domestic violence might impact a child's behavior
- Emotional or internalizing behaviors-These behaviors generally impact a child’s thoughts about themselves and their feelings, but might not be obvious to observers. These behaviors are seen more in girls than in boys, but can occur in both genders. This involves ways in which children respond to stress by such reactions as withdrawal from a situation, anxiety, or depression.
- Disruptive or externalizing behaviors-Refers to behavior problems that are manifested in a child’s behavior and show the child reacting negatively to their external environment. These behaviors are generally seen more often in boys than in girls, though we can see these behaviors in both genders. People might see this as ways that children “act out” and usually involves problems with relationships with others. Examples might be a higher level of aggression towards others, delinquent behavior, increased hostility towards others, problems with conduct, and acting out in destructive manners. Sometimes mothers report that their sons see their fathers behave abusively towards them and then replicate some of the same abusive behaviors toward their mothers. This can include different forms of abuse, including children physically abusing their parents, or can involve emotional abuse, where children are disrespectful of their mothers, call their mothers names,and/or humiliate or belittle their mothers.
It is important to note that children might have behaviors in both categories. For example, a child that is having behavior problems in schools might also be feeling very anxious about the situation at home.
Thoughts, attitudes and beliefs a child might have or develop when exposed to domestic violence:
- Violence gets you what you want
- Victims are to blame for violence
- When people hurt others, they do not get in trouble
- People who love you can also hurt you
- Women don’t have the right to be treated with respect
- You have two choices-to be the victim or to be the aggressors
- Unhealthy, unequal relationships are normal and to be expected
Feelings children might have about domestic violence
- Guilt (somehow I caused the abuse, or I didn’t stop the abuse)
- Anger (Why does mom make him so mad?)
- Frustration (I have problems too and no one cares)
- Worry (Is mom going to be okay?)
- Anxiety (What will happen if I go somewhere?)
- Fear (Am I going to be hurt too?)
- Confusion (Sometimes I love my mom and sometimes I am mad…)
Another important way that children can be affected by domestic violence is that the ways in which they cope and survive with the situations of insecurity in their homes may become problematic. Coping strategies and survival skills that help them get through an unhealthy situation in the moment might end up creating problems in the long run. For example, if a child slips into a fantasy world when hearing shouting at home, this could be detrimental to the child when they slip into a fantasy world while at school. Teenagers who avoid being at home to avoid violence might end up running away and finding themselves is very vulnerable situations when living with friends or living on the street.
If you are concerned about your children and their responses to domestic violence, here are some tips in how to address the situation you are in with your children.
Although it may be difficult to talk to your children about it, tell them the truth about the abuse. Children are aware of what is happening in their home, and addressing what is occurring is important for children. Children can have many common misunderstandings about abuse, such as “its my fault they are fighting” (particularly if the abusive incident started over issues related to the child) or “mom and dad are equal parties are in a “fight.” Some abusive individuals will tell children their side of the story, to further damage children’s relationships with their moms. It is important for children to hear from you (in an age-appropriate manner) that abuse is not their fault, and isn’t your fault either. Don’t tell children things they don’t need to hear, but not discussing abuse can end up being more damaging to children in the long-run.
Answer their questions honestly in an age appropriate way. Let your children know the abusive person’s behavior is not acceptable and not their fault. You don’t need to demonize your partner (especially if he is the children’s father) to talk about what happened. It is also important to let your children know it is okay to miss their father/care-giver too even if they don’t like what happens.
Acknowledge the loss they may be feeling. Allow your children to talk freely about their feelings without becoming judgmental in your responses to them. They need to feel validated and to receive acceptance in their feelings.
Have adult discussions with adults. It is important for you to have support from others, but your children should not have the role of providing you with the emotional support your need. Be careful not to discuss the specifics of your situation with others when your children can hear. In addition, there are certain details that aren’t appropriate to share with children. Make sure that you pay attention to ways in which children might overhear conversations, such as in the car on a cell phone while the children are in the car.
It can be okay to cry in front of your children. This lets them know that feelings are normal and it gives them permission to express their feelings. Being sad that abuse occurred is a very natural feeling. Think through your relationship with your children and you will know how to discuss expressing feelings appropriately with children. Children need to know that their feelings, whatever they are, are okay.
There are things that you can do to protect your children. Talk about when the violence is most likely to occur. Depending on your situation, you may have to tell your children there is a possibility that the abusive person may not be living in their home or that you may need to leave your home if the abusive person chooses not to get help and learn a new way to treat people. It is possible that children will be mandated to have visitation so it is important to be sensitive to what you say or promise.
Set boundaries with your children. Discuss healthy boundaries with children. When exposed to domestic violence, it is important that children know that certain behaviors (such as physically hurting another person) are unacceptable, even if they have witnessed this behavior. Often children function best when they know what they are allowed to do and what isn’t permitted.
Help your children understand that they aren’t responsible for the abuse and that it isn’t their job to stop it. Make sure to tell them the abuse is not their fault. Children need to know they are not the cause of the harm even if they hear words that suggest it. They need to know that they cannot control or stop abuse when it starts, and it is not their responsibility to intervene if abuse is occurring.
For more information about children’s experiences when their mother is experiencing violence, you can read Little Eyes, Little Ears: How Violence Against a Mother Shapes Children as they Grow, available online at no cost at: http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/ncfv-cnivf/pdfs/fem-2007-LELE_e.pdf . This short document will give you invaluable information about how children are changed by violence at home, how domestic violence impacts your ability to parent, and how domestic violence can impact children at different ages. The document is available at no cost.
If you are concerned about your children, contact your local domestic violence program and ask them about services that might be available to your children. Each domestic violence program operates differently, but they might have support groups for children or be able to provide you with referrals to other organizations who work with children. Remember you are not alone and you have a tremendous capacity to support your children throughout this experience.
Information taken from Little Eyes, Little Ears: How Violence Against a Mother Shapes Children as they Grow by Alison Cunningham and Linda Baker, available at http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/ncfv-cnivf/pdfs/fem-2007-LELE_e.pdf