How Children are Affected
When children are a part of a family coping with domestic violence, their unique needs must be considered. Whether the non-abusive parent is trying to provide more safety while staying within the home or is attempting to leave, having children makes the situation far more complex.
Domestic violence has an enormous impact on children's lives, causing both external and internal symptoms. Being a bystander to violence may be as traumatic as being a direct victim. It is a horrifying and helpless feeling for a child on the other side of a door where he/she knows abuse is occurring. There can be lasting emotional, behavioral, physical, social and cognitive effects of domestic violence for children.
There is no age at which a child is immune to the effects of exposure to domestic violence. Domestic abuse is perhaps the most toxic form of exposure to violence for young children, precisely because it happens in the one place they most deserve to feel safe by the people they most love and upon whom they place their highest trust.
A child's reaction to trauma is directly related to a parent's ability to cope. The relationship between the non-abusive parent and the child is an especially significant bond in helping children cope with and heal from domestic abuse.
Children who’ve witnessed or been personally victimized by domestic abuse may display any of the following:
- Guilt (responsible for violence)
- Shame (only happens to them)
- Fear (of expressing feelings to others and of the unknown)
- Confusion (conflicted loyalties)
- Anger (about the violence)
- Grief (over losses or disappointments)
- Burdened (inappropriate roles as caretaker or parent)
- Act out or withdraw
- Be an overachiever or underachiever
- Refuse to go to school
- Try to be the caretaker (taking on adult roles or responsibilities)
- Be aggressive or passive (bullying or doormat)
- Have rigid defenses (sarcastic, blaming, defensive)
- Engage in attention-seeking behaviors
- Have nightmares or bedwetting issues
- Have trouble falling asleep (anxiety goes up at night)
- Somatic complaints (headaches, stomachaches)
- Nervous, anxious, short attention span
- Tired, lethargic (may seem lazy)
- Often sick with colds, flu, etc.
- Neglect of personal hygiene
- Regression in development
- No reaction at times to pain (physical and/or emotional)
- Feel isolated (no friends or has distant relationships)
- Experience relationships with friends that may start intensely and end abruptly
- Have difficulty trusting others
- Exhibit poor conflict resolutions skills
- Express a desire to get involved in an excessive amount of social activities (often as a way to stay away from home)
- Feel responsible for violence
- Blame others for their behavior
- Feel that it's OK to hit others to get what they want, express anger, feel powerful or gain control
- Suffer from low self-esteem
- Have difficulty expressing their needs
- Find it difficult to trust people
- Correlate anger with people getting hurt
- Have unhealthy ideas about relationship roles between men and women, parents and children, etc.
- Regulation of emotional states
- Impulse control
- Capacity to develop healthy relationships with others
- Identification with social norms and values
Helping Children Cope
Adults outside the immediate family who have contact with children from an abusive home can provide some support that will foster coping skills and healing for the children, whether those adults are other relatives, teachers, advocates, school counselors, coaches, clergy, family friends, etc. Some tips for adults who want to help:
- Keep in mind that the non-abusive parent provides the best chance to help the children.
- Approach each parent with an open mind and heart; help them do the same with their kids.
- When facilitating conversation between a parent and child, do not allow negative talk about the other parent.
- Create opportunities for families to have good times together.
- Prepare family safety plans so children know what to expect and how to best respond.
- Give children different ways and opportunities to tell their stories.
- Provide activities to help children develop feelings of empowerment and self-esteem.
Addressing Youth Dating Violence
Parents of preteens and teens need to inform themselves about youth dating violence and must be vigilant in looking for the signs that their daughter or son is involved in an unhealthy formative dating relationship.
Some staggering statistics about youth dating violence:
- One in three high school girls have been, or will be, involved in an abusive relationship.
- Teen dating violence often takes place in the home of one of the teen partners.
- One in five college students will experience some form of dating violence.
- One in three lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender high school teens have been, or will be, involved in an abusive relationship.
Indicators Your Teen may be Abused
- Is your teen withdrawing from school activities?
- Has your teen become secretive, ashamed or hostile to parents, family or friends because of the relationship? Does your teen’s partner call several times a night or show up unexpectedly to “check up?”
- Along these lines, is technology playing a role in your teen’s partner’s ability to keep tabs on her/him?
- More than one-third of teens say they have been harassed with text messages; one-quarter say their partner used cell phone, e-mail, blog or chat rooms to insult them.
- Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and other social networking sites are on the rise because abusers can use them to stalk their victims. Don’t deny your teen use of these sites, but talk to them about how to keep themselves safe. They can be a great tool for breaking isolation for a victim.
- Victims of abusive behavior were reluctant to tell their parents: 75% said they had not told them about receiving a harassing number of e-mails or text messages, and 82% had not told them about being pressured to engage in sexual activity.
- Does your teen apologize for their partner's behavior?
- Has your teen stopped hanging out with friends?
Helping Your Teen Through Dating Abuse
- Make sure the timing is right.
- Use “I” statements when describing your feelings. Let your teen know how concerned you are for their safety, well-being and security.
- Be sure to have specific examples to share.
- Listen to and believe your teen.
- Remember, if your teen does open up to you, it is possible you will hear uncomfortable details. It is imperative that you are nonjudgmental by focusing on resolving the problem, rather than criticizing your teen.
- Be a comfort zone for your teen.
- Let your teen have some control in making decisions. Their self-esteem and confidence is lowered by the abusive partner.
- Be a role model for supportive, healthy relationships with your own partner.
- Help your teen create a safety plan for the times when they are not at school or out with friends.
- Contact Harbor House for safety planning.
Things NOT to Say or Do
- Do not be critical of your teen’s partner. This will only put a wall between you and your teen.
- Don’t ask blaming questions such as: “Why didn’t you break up?” or “What did you do to provoke your partner?”
- Don’t pressure your teen into making quick decisions.
- Don’t talk to both teens together. This is very unsafe!
- Don’t assume your teen wants to leave the abusive relationship. Assist your teen in assessing the situation.