In the research literature, children are often called “witnesses” to domestic violence. This term implies a passive role – but children living with conflict and abuse will actively interpret, predict, assess their roles in causing a “fight,” worry about the consequences, engage in problem solving, and/or take measures to protect themselves or siblings, both physically and emotionally.
What are some of the ways children that are exposed to domestic violence?
- Seeing a mother assaulted or demeaned
- Hearing loud conflict and violence
- Seeing the aftermath (e.g., injuries)
- Learning about what happened to a mother
- Being used by an abusive parent as part of the abuse
- Seeing a father abuse his new partner when they
- Visit him on weekends
- Being denied what is owed them for child support
How children might be “used” by an abusive parent:
- Suggesting a child’s mis-behavior is the reason the parent must be abusive
- Encouraging the children to abuse their mother
- Threatening violence against the children and/or pets
- Talking inappropriately to children about their mother’s behavior
- Prolonged court proceedings about custody and access, especially when the abuser has previously shown little interest in the children
- Holding the children hostage or abducting them
Unhealthy lessons children may learn from seeing violence against a parent:
- Violence and threats get you what you want
- A person has two choices – to be the aggressor or be the victim
- Victims are to blame for violence
- When people hurt others, they do not get in trouble
- Women are weak, helpless, incompetent, stupid, or violent
- Anger causes violence or drinking causes violence
- People who love you can also hurt you
- Anger should be suppressed because it can get out of control
- Unhealthy, unequal relationships are normal or to be expected
- Men are in charge and get to control women’s lives
- Women don’t have the right to be treated with respect
Source: National Child Welfare Resource Center for Family-centered Practice. How violence against a mother shapes children as they grow
- Sadness: why is this happening again?
- Confusion: why doesn’t Mom just kick him out?
- Concern: Mom is going to get really hurt one day
- Frustration: I have problems too, but no one seems to care
- Isolation: I can’t talk to anyone about this
- Guilt: I could have done something to prevent this
- Fear: he might turn on me next or hurt me
- Anxiety: is this what my future relationships will be like?
- Embarrassment: other families don’t do this / the neighbors will hear
- Resignation: this is never going to stop
- Vengeful: I wish he would die or get hit by a bus
- Worthlessness: if they really cared about me, they would stop this
- Helplessness: there is nothing I can do to help
- Responsibility: I have to protect my younger siblings from this situation
- Anger: why does Mom let him treat her (and me) so badly?
- Worry: I don’t want to move so I hope Mom puts up with it
- Panic: how will we afford to live or eat if Mom leaves him?
MYTH: A woman who loves her children would get out of an abusive relationship to protect them from harm.
REALITY: Some women stay in abusive relationships to protect the children. Especially when the violence is severe, the period aroundand after a relationship break-up can be dangerous.
- A woman might fear losing custody, especially if the man threatened to report her to child protection services, can finance a protracted custody battle, or might abduct them, perhaps to his country of origin. Even a woman who retains custody will worry about children’s safety during visitation with their father, because she is no longer there to run interference and protect them.
- Some women leave the relationship only to reconcile later for safety reasons, or because she has difficulty providing for or managing the
MYTH: Children will recognize their mother as a victim and their father as the cause of the problems and abuse.
REALITY: Children can blame their mothers as much or more than they blame their fathers.
- Young children don’t recognize the power imbalance when parents “fight.” Both adults seem equally powerful to them. Toddlers or pre-schoolers live predominately in the present, so an abusive father who bestows a nice present will be quickly forgiven for a recent upsetting incident. Not until they approach adolescence will most children develop a more adult-like understanding of the dynamics of violence and abuse. -Still, older children may be angry at and blame a mother for bringing an abusive man into the home, not protecting herself or them from his abuse, staying with him after it was evident that he was abusive, or reconciling with him after leaving.
MYTH: Children would hate a father who abused them or who abused their mother.
REALITY: Children can love a man who is abusive to them or their mother.
- An abusive man seen as an unfit parent by most adults can be adored and respected by his children. Over time, some children will grow closer to and identify more with him than their mother, perhaps believing his rationalizations about the abuse being her fault.
- Once gone from the family, children may grieve his absence as in any parental separation. For children too young to comprehend cause and effect, the separation seems to be caused by the mother who leaves the relationship rather than the father whose behavior made the relationship unsafe.
MYTH: When the abusive man is out of the picture, any family problems the children have will get better.
REALITY: When the man leaves the home, children may be more out-of-control, angry, sad or in conflict with others including siblings.
Ending a child’s exposure to violence at home is the single best intervention but, if that exposure has been lengthy, problems may not evaporate. Strained family dynamics and conduct problems are linked to many factors including:
- the absence of an authoritarian parent. On the surface, authoritarian parenting seems effectiveby keeping the children “in line.” When an authoritarianparent leaves, the children can misbehave because theynever developed internal controls and cannot regulatetheir behavior and impulses.
- struggles by the mother to establish her parental authority. An abusive man canundermine a mother’s parenting. When he is gone, thechildren may resist her authority.
- the strains of crisis and transition experienced by the family
Leaving an abusive partner is often associated with decline in standard of living, residential moves, changing schools, disruption in a child’s peer relations, and perhaps one or more stay in a shelter. Such disruption can have a deleterious impact on children’s behavior and some children will blame their mothers for the unwelcome changes.
When facing a difficult situation, children and teenagers find ways to “cope.” They come to an understanding (possibly distorted) about what is happening and deal with the flood of hurtful emotions. Their strategies can involve feelings (emotional), thoughts (cognitive), or actions (behavioral).
Some strategies may be helpful in the moment but are costly in the long run
- coping strategies help a child get through a time of stress or crisis, such as when there is abuse at home
- however, if used as a general response to other circumstances, these strategies may create problems in the long run
- the longer a costly strategy is used, or the more effective it is in shielding a youth from overwhelming emotions and hurt, the harder it may be to modify or extinguish
Young children have limited coping strategies and need adults to buffer them from the harmful consequences of stress and adversities.
The following are coping strategies you may see in children and teenagers: Remember that coping styles vary with age and that some of these strategies can be triggered by other adversities such as severe marital conflict and parental substance abuse.
Mental blocking or disconnecting emotionally
- numbing emotions or blocking thoughts
- tuning out the noise or chaos, learning not to hear it, being oblivious
- concentrating hard to believe they are somewhere else
- drinking alcohol or using drugs
Making it better through fantasy
- planning revenge on the abuser, fantasizing about killing them
- fantasizing about a happier life, living with a different family or a kind father
- fantasizing about life after a divorce or after the abuser leaves
- fantasizing about abuser being “hit by a bus”
- hoping to be rescued, by super heroes or police or “Prince Charming”
- going into another room, leaving the house during a violent episode
Looking for love and acceptance in all the wrong places
- falling in with bad friends
- having sex for the intimacy and closeness
- trying to have a baby as a teenager or getting pregnant to have someone to love them
Taking charge through caretaking
- protecting brothers and sisters from danger
- nurturing siblings like a surrogate parent or taking the “parent” role with siblings
- nurturing and taking care of the victim
Reaching out for help
- telling a teacher, neighbor, or friend’s parent
- calling the police
- talking to siblings, friends, or supportive adults
Crying out for help
- suicidal gestures
- self-injury, carving
- lashing out in anger, being aggressive with others, or getting into fights
Re-directing emotions into positive activities
- sports, running, fitness
- writing, journaling, drawing, poetry, acting, being creative
Trying to predict, explain, prevent or control the behavior of an abuser
- thinking “Mommy has been bad” or “I have been bad” or “Daddy is under stress at work”
- thinking “I can stop the violence by changing my behavior” or “I can predict it”
- trying to be the perfect child
- lying to cover up bad things (e.g., a bad grade) to avoid criticism, abuse or family stress
From Little Eyes, Little Ears publication