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Children are the Silent Victims of Domestic Abuse

April 11, 2016

Part one of a two-part series.

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. Therefore, I wanted to share about a very common occurrence in many homes- domestic abuse. Domestic abuse is any pattern where a person attempts to impose his/her will and gain control over another person by using threats, coercion and/or manipulation. Domestic abuse does not always involve physical violence; in fact, there are 9 forms of abuse and only 2 could be considered “physical” in nature. When we talk about domestic abuse, the focus is usually on the caregiver who is being abused rather than the children who are exposed to it. Many myths surround this issue as to whether or not children are affected if they are not the ones getting hit.

Due to the nature of this topic, I divided this article in two parts. Part 1 will address the 9 different forms of abuse and how children are exposed to it. Part 2 will deal with how children are affected and ways to help them. I’m writing this article with the thought that you, the reader, may be involved in an abusive relationship or may know someone who is. My hope is to provide information void of judgment, but helpful in making the right decisions for you and your children.

To understand the scope of the problem, let me start with a few statistics regarding domestic abuse in the U.S., alone, from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence:

  • 3 women are murdered every day by current or former partners.
  • Every minute, 20 people are victims of domestic abuse.
  • Domestic abuse is the leading cause of homicides and injury-related deaths during pregnancy.
  • 10 million children are exposed to domestic abuse every year.
  • Children who are exposed to domestic violence are four times more likely to either become perpetrators or victims of domestic abuse when they grow up.

These statistics show the magnitude of the problem. Several studies on children who are exposed to domestic violence have revealed that these children have symptoms similar to those found in soldiers who are returning from war. And these children do not have to be the ones getting hit to have these symptoms. Below, I will explain four ways in which children are exposed to domestic abuse and thus, develop these symptoms. I will specifically address the symptoms in Part 2 of this article.

9 different forms of abuse

Abuse is a way for perpetrators to get their way. As you will see below, they have different tactics to get their way and most do not involve physical abuse. In fact, as long as they get what they want, they do not have to become physical. Many of them use other forms of abuse that are more “subtle” to accomplish the same goal. Once these other forms of abuse stop working, they will escalate the abuse until it becomes physical. After talking with and treating hundreds of survivors, including children who were exposed to abuse, I’ve learned that the other 7 forms of abuse can be much worse and their effects more long-lasting. Here are the 9 different forms of abuse and a few examples of each:

Physical: hitting, slapping, pushing, grabbing, kicking, chocking, pulling, blocking, restraining, throwing.

Psychological: guilt-trips, twisting your words, blaming you for the abuse, reading personal information to then use it as leverage, treats you one way in public and another way behind closed doors, playing mind games, displaying weapons during arguments, minimizing the abuse.

Sexual: expects sexual access, does not take “no” as an answer, discloses your intimate behaviors, gets upset if you’re not “in the mood,” uses drugs and alcohol to “get you in the mood,” is unfaithful and exposes you to get an STD.

Spiritual: uses religious books to support his abuse, criticizes you through prayers, manipulates religious leaders to put pressure on you, uses religious verbiage during arguments to put you down, uses religious beliefs to create a culture of fear and shame, prevents you from practicing your religious beliefs.

Verbal: yells and screams at you, calls you degrading names, picks you, lectures you, curses at you, says things to “get even.”

Familial: keeps your from family activities, criticizes your family, gets you pregnant to keep you at home, moves you to another part of the county away from your family, defines your role in the home, criticizes your parenting, threatens to take the children from you if you leave, uses the children as “spies,” keeps the children longer during visitations to ruin your plans, disciplines the children in a way you don’t agree with, encourages children to be disrespectful toward you, puts children at risk to upset you, causes division between you and the children.

Financial: withholds money from you, spends the family money, sabotages your attempts to work, prevents you from going to school, makes you beg for money, takes/steals your money, does not let you have access to the family income, gets you fired from a job, makes you account for every penny by showing him receipts, uses money as leverage. 

Social: withholds car or other resources, controls who you talk to and/or where you go, checks your cell phone/social media accounts without your permission, goes with you wherever you go, calls you constantly when you are out, makes your friends uncomfortable so they don’t come over as much, uses apps in your phone to track you, criticizes your friends to force you to cancel plans “to avoid arguments.”

Emotional: I left this one at the end because to an extent, all of the other forms of abuse are emotional in nature. However, there are some examples that are specific such as making you feel like you’re not good enough, slamming doors, punching walls, embarrasses/humiliates you in public, uses the “silent treatment,” puts down your accomplishments, saying no one else will want to be with you, doing/saying things to get you upset and then blame you for how he treats you, does not respect your feelings, doing/saying things to intimidate you, comparing you to ex-partners to get you to “show him you’re different,” sudden mood changes to keep you on the edge, creating an environment where you feel like you’re constantly walking on eggshells, acting like a victim to make you feel guilty and get you back, breaking items that have sentimental value to you.

If you’re interested in knowing more about domestic abuse, perpetrators, and your options, you can read books by author Lundy Bancroft:

  • Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men.
  • Should I Stay or Should I Go? A guide to Knowing if Your Relationship Can - and Should - be Saved.

How are children exposed?

One of the statistics presented earlier is that “10 million children are exposed to domestic abuse every year.” These children are exposed to domestic abuse in 4 different ways: 

They witness it. Abuse can happen anywhere: car, kitchen, living room, park, bathrooms, bedrooms. Once abuse begins, the abusers can have an almost tunnel-vision that causes children to “disappear” from his awareness. Victims are often so focused on keeping the abuse from escalating that they are also not aware of the additional eyes in the room.

They hear it. They may in another room, playing or trying to sleep when they hear screams, things being broken, doors being slammed, walls getting punched, victim crying, asking for the abuser to stop. For some, this may be even worse because their imagination fills in the gaps of what they are hearing and what is actually happening.

They hear about it from others. Others include siblings, cousins, grandparents, police officers or case workers who may be called and ask them about it. One thing to remember is that children know much more than others give them credit for. 

They see the aftermath. They may see items broken, out of place, missing. They may also see bruises or marks on the victim, how she may be trying to avoid eye-contact, see her “puffy eyes,” notice how quiet and tense the environment is. Even if they did not see it or hear it, previous incidents help them put it all together and figure out what happened. 

Regardless of how the children are exposed, the effects can be deep and create other problems in the lives of these children. These problems can be emotional, psychological and/or behavioral. The best way to help these children is to prevent their exposure to domestic abuse.

If you, or someone you know is involved in an abusive relationship, please know that help is available. You are not alone. The process can seem overwhelming but after you take the first step, others will help you in taking the next ones. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 at: 1-800-799-7233.

Join me for Part 2 of this blog post, coming soon, where I’ll share with you how to tell if children have been exposed to domestic abuse and what you can do to help them.