A Little Help

By Marcia Bannister |

Part I | True Stories from Three Women

Domestic abuse greatly affects children who witness the psychological and physical trauma. Numerous resources, including a CNN report in September 2014, indicate that attempts at shielding children from the abuse are unsuccessful. Children still know. Katie Ray-Jones, President and CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, reported that at least 90% of children in these situations are aware of the abuse.

Children exposed to domestic violence experience stress and are more likely to demonstrate social, emotional, cognitive, and attitudinal problems. Specific behaviors may include aggression, depression, anxiety, anger, disobedience, poor social skills, low achievement in test scores and academic performance, and poor conflict resolution skills. Older children sometimes blame themselves, thinking that the arguing is their fault. Often the youngest victims are unable to verbalize their feelings and internalize the pain. This can lead to the child repressing memories that may surface later as they enter school.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study has determined that childhood trauma is a cause for ongoing chronic health concerns in adulthood. Individuals who witness violence are also at greater risk for substance abuse, obesity, cancer, heart disease, depression, and unintended pregnancy. If trauma goes untreated, it can lead to early death.


This graph shows the rate that participants in the ACE Study experienced abuse and household dysfunction, two of the categories of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE). The more ACEs a child has, the risks for negative health outcomes as an adult increases. Click the image for the full infographic from IowaAces360.org

I interviewed individuals who have experienced domestic violence at different stages in their lives. The commonality revealed is that they were all aware of violence occurring, whether it was in their parent’s relationship or their own. They realize that their own children also now react in some fashion to similar situations.

S.’s Story

S. experienced domestic violence as a teenager. Her parents verbally assaulted each other, but she does not remember any physical abuse occurring. She and her siblings were usually in another room, but they could still hear the yelling. She described feeling “unsure” as to whom she should be more supportive. The marriage ended in divorce, leaving S and her siblings torn between living with their mother or their father. She did not feel that her childhood experience influenced her personal relationships as an adult, such as her choices in intimate relationships. Now, four years into a sometimes emotionally and verbally abusive relationship, she is mother to three young children. S made the difficult decision to ask their father to leave the home in order to “put her children’s needs first.” Her oldest child, age 2 ½ years at the time of the intensive arguing, reacted somewhat differently when his father moved out. He became more aggressive, hitting and throwing items. But, because she continued to support her child’s feelings and provide him with reassurance, these behaviors have nearly ceased.

K.’s Story

K. did not grow up in an abusive home, but experienced domestic abuse shortly after learning of her pregnancy. When she told her partner about the unplanned pregnancy, he was psychologically abusive and unsupportive. She went to live with family. Her son’s full-term birth weight was less than six pounds. She attributes the low birth weight to the stressors that she endured through pregnancy, causing her to smoke cigarettes as a coping tool. After her son’s birth, K received numerous phone calls from her partner threatening to take their child away from her. She secured a home of her own and stable employment. He pursued the custody issues and secured their son full-time after court hearings. After a weekend visitation, K’s partner pushed her with extreme force when she tried to prevent him from entering the home. After witnessing this physical confrontation, her now two-year-old child has become quite defensive of anyone coming near her. He cries and places himself between anyone who interacts with her in an aggressive manner. K shared that many times she play-wrestles with her younger siblings, and even this action has upset her son. She hopes that time, as well as a safe and nurturing environment, will heal her child’s emotional wounds.

J.’s Story

J. gave a different perspective on how domestic violence impacts children. She was only seven years old when she recalls a great deal of abuse happening between her parents. She remembers that she and her older sibling would cover their ears, trying to block out the verbal and physical assaults, unsure of what to do and who to tell. J observed that this violence coincided with habitual drug and alcohol abuse. Her parents would refrain from using substances in the children’s presence, but the aftereffects were much worse. J’s reactions to the abuse resulted in risky recreational behaviors and problems in school. Her parents divorced, remarried, and divorced again. J admits that trust issues have remained a barrier in her social interactions, including her husband of 15 years. She is conscious of the subtle reactions that their 1 ½-year-old son demonstrates when the family experiences any stressful situations, so J tries to shield him.

A child who witnesses domestic violence will forever be changed. However, with secure relationships and ongoing strong support systems, the wounds of violence can fade into scars. As a society we need to be ready to respond and nurture so this witnessed behavior does not become cyclical, and future generations will be given better coping skills and resources, ending the domestic violence epidemic.

Article originally published in Prevention Winter 2014 as part of Never Hit, But Deeply Harmed — Children and Domestic Violence two part series. Part II | Tips for Processing and Healing

Photo from Adwriter on Flickr

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