This year, more than 3 million children will be exposed to parental violence in their own homes. That violence can range from physical abuse to a vicious argument to harmful manipulation for family control. But regardless of what the exact abuse is, millions of children will have to watch (or listen to) one parent being abused by another.
If you know a parent in an abusive relationship-or are in one yourself-there are ways to protect your children and yourself from further violence.
What is domestic abuse?
Domestic abuse occurs when a person intentionally hurts their partner, and can include physical, emotional, verbal and sexual abuse. It is not limited to the more obvious abuses such as hitting, kicking, shoving or unwanted sexual acts. Many cases of domestic violence include less obvious forms such as:
- Control of finances
- Isolation from friends and family
- Criticism and sexist comments
- Jealousy and possessiveness
- Threats of harm to partner, children, pets, etc.
Domestic violence is widespread and occurs in ALL socioeconomic groups.
Does domestic violence affect children?
Yes. More than half of male batterers also frequently abuse their children, so many of these innocent witnesses are also victims themselves.
But a child does not have to be physically or verbally abused to be hurt by domestic violence. Hearing, seeing, or just knowing about the abuse of one parent by another takes a huge toll on children.
An estimated 50% of all homelessness among women and children is due to domestic violence. The dynamics of a violent home are detrimental to the normal development of a child and interaction of a family. These negative dynamics include:
- Control of family by one, forcibly dominant member
- Abuse of a parent
- Protection of a “family secret”
How does domestic violence affect children?
Children who witness domestic violence are affected in ways similar to children who are physically abused. But the complete spectrum of effects includes a wide range of reactions where children may:
- Develop social, emotional, psychological and/or behavioral problems. Children of abused mothers are 6 times more likely to abuse drugs and/or alcohol and are at a higher risk of running away.
- Grow up thinking violence is an acceptable part of family life.
- If they are boys, are more violent. Boys who have witnessed abuse of their mothers are 10 times more likely to abuse female partners as adults.
- If they are girls, are more passive and withdrawn.
- Live in daily fear, which causes increased stress, confusion and tension. This constant strain can result in a lifelong fear and inability to trust others.
- Feel responsible for the abuse and helpless to stop it.
How can I tell if a child might be living in a violent home?
The affects of witnessing domestic abuse result in a number of signs and symptoms:
Unusual or unexplained injuries. When the physical violence is reaching the child-whether directly or through his or her attempts to protect the abused parent-signs can be as obvious as bruising and broken bones. In this case, this is also considered child abuse and child protective services should be contacted.
Chronic illnesses, headaches or stomachaches. A child’s reaction to the constant fear and high stress levels in the home often manifests itself as a recurring health issue.
Signs of neglect, such as poor hygiene or dirty clothing. An abused parent might be unable to provide children with the care they need due to their own physical injuries, emotional problems caused by the abuse or a partner simply not allowing her to care for the children.
Depression or low self-esteem. For girls especially, depression, withdrawal and other internalized behaviors are common signs of witnessing domestic violence.
Violent behavior. For boys, the use of violence and other externalized behaviors are common reactions to witnessing domestic violence.
Fatigue, caused by sleeping problems. Many parents think that if children are “asleep” in bed, they won’t be affected by the violence. Not true. In fact, even if children are supposed to be asleep, they more than likely hear the violence and are still affected by it. This nighttime violence can cause children to lose or fear sleep.
How to help stop domestic violence and protect children from its harmful ripple effect:
1. If YOU are a victim of domestic violence, SEEK SHELTER AND HELP. There is no shame in being a victim of violence in your home. Because 2/3 of abused children are parented by battered women, you are not only saving yourself but also your family. Children will appreciate your decision to keep them and you safe.
If you need immediate assistance, dial 911.
You can also call the national domestic violence hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE
2. If you suspect child abuse or domestic violence, TAKE ACTION. Your one action could save someone’s life.
If someone is in immediate danger, dial 911.
If you suspect child abuse, you can contact your local Child Protective Services.
3. We can all help children who are living in domestic violence situations.
- Remind them the violence is not their fault and that no one deserves to be abused.
- Don’t make promises you can’t keep, such as “This will never happen again,” or “I promise no one will hurt you.” Instead, listen to their thoughts and be there for them as a safe, caring adult in their lives.
- Respect a child’s conflicting emotions about the situation. They may love the abusive parent, feel frustrated with the victimized parent for not stopping the abuse, or feel guilty for not protecting their parent and/or other siblings
- Teach conflict resolution skills. Be an example by NOT using violence of any kind to resolve problems. Use good communication skills and show understanding for others.