October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month and in light of that I would like to take time today to talk about the red flags of abuse in regards to children. Research has shown that children who grow up in homes in which domestic violence takes place experience the effects of the violence, even if they don’t always see it or experience any direct abuse themselves. Today I’m going to discuss the ways in which domestic violence affects children and how these are often expressed in children.
Violence Affects Children Emotionally
Guilt – Children may feel responsible for the violence.
- Shame – Children often believe that it does not happen anywhere else.
- Fear – of expressing feelings, of divorce or separation, of injury.
- Confusion – Children feel confused as to whether to love or hate the abuser, and often vacillate between the two.
- Anger – about the violence, about the lack of safety in the home.
- Grief – over family loss issues.
- Burdened – over appropriate role as caretaker. With this role reversal, often an older child is forced to accept responsibility for the care of younger siblings and of the household due to the parents’ inability to fulfill these functions. The child may never have the opportunity to participate in normal childhood activities.
Violence Affects Children Behaviorally
- Children may act out or withdraw and isolate.When it comes to isolation and withdrawal, this behavior seldom attracts attention, so these children may not be identified as troubled.
- Children may overcompensate by overachieving or underachieving.
- Children may refuse to go to school – They may believe that if they stay home their presence will keep the fighting under control, or that peers will recognize the physical abuse, emotional deprivation, or sexual abuse.
- Children may exhibit care taking behaviors – they worry about the needs of others more than their own needs.
- Children may become aggressive or overly passive.
- Children may have rigid defenses – being aloof, sarcastic, blaming, or defensive.
- Children may engage in attention seeking behaviors.
- Children may start wetting the bed or have nightmares.
- Children may appear chaotic and it may be hard to set limits with them. This is often because their emotional state is so chaotic and disregulated due to not knowing what is happening at home or when the violence will occur.
- Children may run away, viewing this as their only alternative for escaping an unbearable home situation.
- Older children from violent families may engage in excessive use of alcohol or drugs. This behavior is often, but not always, modeled after their parents’ behavior and is viewed as a psychological escape from their problems.
- When these children become adolescents or adults, they may turn on their parents and become aggressive towards them. Also, when they are adults, they may abuse their own children or spouses.
Violence Affects Children Physically
- Children will often exhibit somatic complaints, such as headaches, stomach aches, and asthma.
- Children may appear nervous, anxious, and have a short attention span.
- Children may be lethargic and this may appear as laziness.
- Children may get sick often with colds, flu, etc.
- Children may neglect their personal hygiene.
- Children may regress in developmental tasks – bed wetting, thumb sucking, clinging, etc.
Violence Affects Children Socially
- Children may isolate, either having no friends or they may be distant in their friendships.
- Relationships with friends may start intensely and end abruptly.
- Children may have difficulty trusting others.
- Children may exhibit poor conflict resolution skills.
- Children may be excessively socially involved (to stay away from the home).
- Children may be passive with others and/or seek power to be the aggressor.
Violence Affects Children Cognitively
- Children may learn to blame others for their behaviors.
- Children may believe it is okay to hit others to get what you want, to express anger, to feel powerful, to get their needs met.
- Children may have a low self-concept.
- Children may learn not to ask for what they need.
- Again, children may learn not to trust (because of unkept promises to change).
- Children may believe that to feel angry is bad.
- Children may come to believe in rigid gender roles.
It is not necessary for all of these to be present, but these are certainly some of the red flags to look out for if you suspect a child may be in a violent home environment. It is important to be on the child’s side. More often than not when many of these behaviors are exhibited, especially those that are viewed as unacceptable and disruptive at school, the child gets punished and their parents are called. It is important to be there for the child and to talk to them about how sometimes when there is trouble at home, children respond in this way. This may give you an opening for the child to be vulnerable enough to trust you that these behaviors are not necessarily their fault – that they are reacting to chaos and danger at home. This can also help them let go of some shame they might have about how they are behaving and interacting with the world, giving them understanding as to why they are responding so.
If you believe that a child might be in danger or might be witnessing or experiencing violence at home, do not hesitate to contact the following resources:
9-1-1 – your local police department.
Lifeworks – www.lifeworksaustin.org
Safe Place – www.safeplace.org
The Center for Child Protection – www.centerforchildprotection.org
Child Protective Services – https://www.dfps.state.tx.us/child_protection/