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Children are the silent victims of domestic abuse

April 13, 2016

This is the second part of our series where we’ll talk about the silent victims of domestic abuse- children. I’m sharing this information with you to help you understand how domestic abuse impacts children. The first part addressed different forms of abuse and how children could be exposed to it. This second part will talk about how they are affected and what can be done to help them.

How are children affected?

Children are impacted by the abuse in the same way as if they were the “direct” recipients of the abuse. As mentioned in our first post, studies on children who grow up in homes with domestic abuse show the same symptoms as soldiers returning from active wars. This is concerning given the high number of children exposed to domestic abuse. Here are some common symptoms:

Behavioral Symptoms:

-    Acting out and hitting others. Children exposed to domestic abuse may have the wrong idea of how conflicts are resolved. They might think that hitting others to get what they want is acceptable and thus, they will hit other children if the other children are not doing what they want them to do.

-    Severe temper tantrums. Children exposed to domestic abuse often have a difficult time calming down and because of the chaos in the home, they feel it is necessary to overemphasize their needs through severe temper tantrums.

-    Hurting themselves. This behavior is paradoxical in that children who self-harm do it to calm down. The body releases natural pain killers when children self-harm, which causes a numbing sensation. This of course can be dangerous and life-threatening.

-    Hyperactivity. Children have a difficult time sitting and paying attention. In many cases, hyperactivity is anxiety the child has about what is happening at home and feeling powerless. They walk through life “on guard” and it’s difficult for them to focus when their mind is thinking about the abuse.

-    Withdrawn. Children who are exposed to domestic abuse tend to isolate because they do not want to talk about what’s happening at home. They believe that if no one knows, things won’t get worse or at the very least, they won’t have to talk about it and then have to think about it.

Physical Symptoms:

-    Problems sleeping. Children have nightmares about the abuse. They also have difficulties falling asleep because their body and mind might be stuck on the night when they heard screams and/or things being broken.

-    Change in appetite. Children go to two extremes, they either avoid eating because they do not feel hungry or they use food as a way to comfort themselves.

-    Physical complaints. Children may develop head or stomach aches without any physical cause. Stress can cause physical issues while destroying the immune system. Therefore, children exposed to domestic abuse are also prone to illnesses and take longer in getting better. Children may also start wetting the bed.

Cognitive Symptoms:

-    Lots of questions. Abuse raises questions in children about the abuser, the victim and themselves. They wonder why he acts like that, if mom will be okay, what they can do to make things better. If they are removed because of the abuse, they wonder if they will ever get back together as a family, if their parents still care about them, or if they did something to cause it that they may not know about.

-    Excessive daydreaming. It may be easier for them to live in a fantasy world than their reality. This causes issues at school as they are not able to pay attention for long periods of time or remember things. In a way, new information competes with thoughts about the abuse for mental energy and resources. Thus, the child is falling behind and grades are dropping.

-    Intrusive thoughts. Thoughts about the abuse might be in the front row of their minds and children have to do things to distract themselves. It is not uncommon nowadays for children to be overly immersed in electronics. However, children who are exposed to domestic abuse use it as a way to distract themselves from their thoughts and emotions.

Emotional Symptoms:

-    Confusion. They don’t understand why the abuse happens, especially since in most cases, it’s not an everyday occurrence. They may also feel confused as to whether or not they did something bad.

-    Fear. When something bad happens our body is wired to respond to prepare us to deal with it. Unfortunately, children exposed to domestic abuse are constantly afraid and this can become their “default setting.” They develop anxiety problems such as phobias, panic attacks, excessive nervousness and worries, and high levels of insecurities. 

-    Sadness. This is a common feeling that often turns into depression. They are emotionally hurting and may not know how to cope.

-    Anger. They may have this feeling toward the abuser for hurting the family but also toward the victim for staying. This feeling comes out in their aggressiveness and acting out behaviors.

-    A sense of guilt. Children have a different way of seeing cause and effect. They may think that the abuse happened because they failed a test, or they did not pick up their toys when they were told, or they did not finish with their meal. They do not understand that the abuser always has a choice and there is nothing they did that caused the abuse to happen.

-    A sense of shame. They do not like what’s happening at home so they do their best to hide it. These are the children who do not talk about home and when asked, become defensive and/or change the topic.

A common occurrence in children with all of these symptoms is getting diagnosed with a mental disorder and then be placed on powerful medications. Common diagnoses given to children who are exposed to domestic abuse are ADHD, depression, anxiety, and conduct disorder. It is unfortunate because many of these children do not have a mental disorder, and medications may only mask the real problem. These children will not get better unless their environment changes.

What do children need?

All children need the following home characteristics. However, children who have been exposed to domestic abuse need them even more in order to heal from their impact:

-    Safety. Children thrive better in environments that are safe. Safety is not an abstract concept but rather an emotional sensation. Children need to feel safe.

-     A sense of normalcy. Children exposed to domestic abuse need discipline, structure, and expectations. If they are treated as if they are somehow different from other children, they may get the message that they are damaged. These children are not damaged, they are hurting. Think of it as what happens when you break an ankle. The doctor puts a cast on your ankle to hold it in place and allow the body to heal. In the same way, discipline and structure provide this for children to begin to heal.

-    Understanding. Children internalize the abuse differently. Therefore, they need to be listened and understood without feeling judged for their thoughts and feelings.

-    Time to heal. Leaving an abusive relationship is just the beginning. Children still need time to fully heal and come to terms with the aftermath of the abuse, especially if they had to move away from family and friends. Compassion and patience goes a long way in helping them heal.

-    Social support. People heal people. Children exposed to domestic abuse greatly benefit from having mentors and other relationships outside the home. Participating in sports, group activities, youth groups, etc. provide a wider supporting net.

-    Emotion-Coaching. This is a term used by Dr. John Gottman to explain five steps to help your children manage their emotions. I like the term “emotion-coaching” because it makes me think of a coach who is watching a player during a game. The coach cannot step into the game and do it for him, but it can provide feedback and guidance throughout the game so that the player can successfully win. These steps are:

    1) Noticing your child’s emotions. Pay attention and be aware of subtle changes in your children’s mood.

    2) Use it to make a connection. Once you notice these changes and emotions, let your child know what you notice and be curious about it.

    3) Listen. As you explore with curiosity, listen carefully and get to know this aspect of your child.

    4) Give them words for it. Children often have difficulties naming their emotions and putting into words their experiences. Help them do this so it’s easier for them to make sense of what’s going in on inside of them.

    5) Brainstorm solutions. Avoid giving them the answers to cope with their emotions. Instead, work with them in coming up with ways to manage them now and in the future.

Of course, the best thing caregivers can do to help the children is to prevent their exposure to domestic abuse. However, even if your children are or have been exposed, know that there is help available for you and them. Please contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 at: 1-800-799-7233.