THE EFFECTS OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE ON CHILDREN

Q: How are babies affected by domestic violence?

You are the most important person in your baby’s life.  And your baby needs the warmth of your touch, holding, and cuddling.  When things are hectic and tense, your baby senses this.  Just as you are sensitive to how your baby feels, your baby is sensitive to you. They pick up on your fear and tension.  They might not eat or sleep on schedule, they may have stomachaches due to this tension, or even have diarrhea.  If you are constantly preoccupied, upset and unavailable, your baby will learn that she can’t count on you to be there to meet her needs.  And, if she can’t trust you, she will then have trouble trusting others.  What often happens is that she will often cling, unable to tolerate the separation from you.

Q: How are toddlers affected by family violence?

The extremes we see in normal toddlers are exaggerated in toddlers from violent families.  A normally active toddler may become hyperactive, running helter skelter, constantly testing us even to the point of enacting the violence by withdrawing, or shying fearfully away from people and acting like “little victims”.

Toddlers are just learning how to communicate with language.  In a violent home, their speech can be affected.  Some simply don’t attempt to talk, and their verbal skills do not develop normally.  Others who live in the stress of violence may become stutterers.  Toddlers may also regress and act more like babies.  For instance, though toilet trained, they may need diapers again, insist on bottles, or return to thumb sucking if they had already given these things up.

Some toddlers who live with violence have fears about going to sleep and have nightmares and tantrums.  They may attach themselves to their mothers and other adults in ways that are not healthy.  Some become overly clingy to their mothers and appear frightened of all other people, while others go in the opposite direction and will attach themselves to any adults, even a stranger, for want of attention. This can seem like a relief to a tired and harassed mother, but it is not what is always best for the child.  What the child actually needs is to spend more time establishing a closer relationship with mom. 

Q: How does violence affect three to six year olds?

Children at this age are actually capable of feeling that they are responsible for the violence in their family.  Why?  Because they are becoming more logical.  They need and want to have explanations for what is happening in “their world”.  It is hard for them to understand that bad and dangerous things happen for no apparent reason.  From an adult point of view, it is hard to realize that children actually feel responsible for the problems at home.  This is a part of their normal self-centeredness.  To deal with this overwhelming burden of responsibility, a little child may feel like a bad person and withdraw, or do the exact opposite and become very aggressive.

Little boys, who want to be like their fathers anyway at this age, may have learned that it is all right to hurt other people when they are angry.  They may bite, kick, hit or throw things.  Little girls who copy their mothers may feel that being hurt is part of a loving relationship.  Studies have shown that boys who grow up in abusive homes repeat this behavior in their own relationships and become the next generation of batterers.  Clearly, we do not want our sons to be abusive men, or our daughters to be victimized as women.

Q:  How are children from seven to eleven affected by family violence?

Both boys and girls at this age may begin to identify with the batterer in an attempt to stay on his side.  They may start to repeat the cycle of abuse by turning on their mother and other siblings.  Or, if they don’t participate in the violence, they may try to stop it by putting themselves between their parents by becoming mediators or by taking sides.  This is a great strain on a child, and it can be physically dangerous too.

School age children are also very aware that something is different in their house.  Shame and embarrassment may keep them from bringing friends home, and they may become cut off socially at a time when friends are so important.

Children between six and eleven are often quite capable of managing household tasks, nurturing younger siblings, and even caring for their mother if she is overwhelmed and depressed.  However, they may take over too many of these “nurturing” responsibilities for their age and lose out on the childhood that they need as a firm base before entering the stormy time of adolescence.  Unless they get help, they will carry the pain for the family and may continue to pay for the loss of their childhood with anger and sadness for the rest of their lives.

Q: How does domestic violence affect teenagers?

Teens who grow up in abusive homes often rebel against authority and over identify with their peers – even more than the average.  If they have low self-esteem, they may choose friends who support their poor self-image and who will approve of their self-destructive behavior.

Some teenagers in violent families literally run away from home.  Others escape through drugs and alcohol.  Adolescents who do not value themselves may have accidents or take extreme life threatening risks.  Some girls may continue to stay with violent boyfriends, men much like their fathers because that is what they believe to be “normal”.  This is reinforced by our society’s attitude, which portrays men as powerful and in control and women as subservient and powerless.  Some girls may even get pregnant in the hope that a baby will provide the love, security, and “ideal” family they have never really had.  However, this only serves to make matters worse, for when you have not grown up yourself, it is hard to make the very real sacrifices that parenting demands.  As a result, very young mothers often rightfully feel extremely frustrated and their children can easily become the scapegoats for their anger.

Teenagers, who remain at home, may feel compelled to stay and protect their mother, the victim.  When they realize that they can’t protect their mother, boys in particular may give up and join the batterer in the abuse.  Adolescent boys from violent homes are also likely to have problems respecting authority figures.  If they have not learned to get what they want by acting out and throwing tantrums, they will develop a pattern of always expecting others in their lives to “make it right”.  They will use power and control to intimidate others to get what they want.

Children of Domestic Violence, Healing the Wounds, by Judith McDermott, MSW, and Frances Wells Buck