Imagine this scenario. Anna and David have been married for 15 years and have two children, Tony, 12, and Jessie, 8. Anna and David have a seemingly happy marriage. David has had issues with jealousy, but Anna has always seen this as a measure of his love for her. David loves his children and tries to be involved with their lives. A few years ago, David faced difficulties at work so he and Anna decided that Anna should go to work part-time to make extra money. Anna likes her job and her children are old enough to not need her around during the day. David, however, seems increasingly agitated with Anna. When he comes home from work, he questions her about her day and asks why she didn’t answer his phone calls and texts. He demands that she pay more attention to him. At dinner, he is angry because it takes her longer to make food, as she is juggling work, grocery shopping, school pick-up, and help with homework. He yells at everyone that the house is a mess. David and Anna get into arguments often. One time after dinner, Tony hears them argue in the kitchen and watches through the crack of the kitchen door as his dad corners his mom with a knife. Tony freezes. That night in bed, he tells himself that if something like that ever happens again, he will do something to stop his dad. Another time, Jessie jolts awake in the middle of the night to the sound of her parents arguing, followed by a loud thump. Heart pounding, she runs into the bathroom and finds her mother on the floor, dazed. Jessie is shaken as she helps her mother up. She listens while her mom tells her that she just got dizzy and fell. She wants to believe her mom, but knows it is a lie. She wishes that she didn’t have to see her mom in so much pain. Sometimes Anna argues with David. Other times she stays quiet and closes her eyes. That makes David even madder, and he yells at her even louder. Often, Tony and Jessie hide in their bedroom and pretend they don’t hear anything. They play games on their phones or listen to music just to escape it all.
What is Domestic Violence?
Domestic violence is a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another that includes physical violence, sexual violence, intimidation, threats, stalking and/or emotional, psychological, or financial abuse. One in four women and one in nine men experience severe intimate partner violence causing physical injury and or negatively impacting their mental health.
Five million children witness domestic violence each year in this country.
Let’s take a look at the above scenario from a few different points of view. First, what’s happening with Anna?
Anna is likely feeling a range of feelings including confusion, shame, love and fear. Anna may not understand that what David is doing to her is abusive. She may have grown up in a home where she witnessed abuse and so she may think that her situation is not that bad, or that all marriages experience ‘conflict’. She is likely ashamed. She may be too ashamed to admit that she is struggling, afraid in her own home, and worried about what his behavior is doing to the kids. She probably still feels love toward him. She might think that if she were more supportive or loved him more, that she could fix him. And she is likely afraid, walking on eggshells in her own home.
Anna will do the best she can to protect her children. She likely knows well the impact this has on their well-being and development. Or, Anna may be in denial about the impact this has on her children, or how much her children really understand. She may worry about what impact leaving might have on her children. She could have received threats from David that if she leaves him, he’ll take the children. She is likely putting what she sees as the best interest of her children ahead of her own.
What about Tony and Jessie?
Experiences in childhood shape our brains – in healthy and unhealthy ways. When children are exposed to trauma, areas of the brain that involve fear, anxiety, and impulsiveness are more pronounced than those that involve reasoning, planning, and behavioral control. One adverse childhood experience that can by severely traumatizing is witnessing violence in the home.
Because domestic violence most often hides behind closed doors, it is difficult to see the signs of abuse. Several factors will influence how Tony and Jessie cope with the violence they witness – the frequency and severity of the abuse, whether David will also be abusive with them, and the amount of protective factors in their lives, such as supportive and connected adult relationships, including with their mom, and the general sense of stability in their lives and community. Tony and Jessie can look fine to the outside world, but it is highly likely that their experience leaves the emotional center of the brain activated at constant levels of alert, causing anxiety, hypervigilance, hyperactivity and an inability to concentrate.
Most children experience trauma-related symptoms. Tony and Jessie may develop feelings of guilt, shame, fear, confusion, anger, and grief. They may become intensely worried for themselves, their mother, and their siblings. They may feel worthless and powerless, and burdened by their situation.
Tony and Jessie may be isolating themselves to take care of things at home. Much like Anna, they are walking on eggshells, waiting for the next trigger of the abuse. Alternatively, they may be overly focused on wanting other’s company to avoid being home. Children who grow up with abuse are often expected to keep the family secret, sometimes not even talking to each other about the abuse. Tony and Jessie will likely have difficulty trusting other adults. They may be in a constant state of fear or have a false sense of security, unable to discern red flags that signal escalation.
Tony and Jessie may feel intense anger at their dad for the violence, and at their mom for being unable to prevent it. They may also blame themselves for the abuse. They may think that if they had not done or said a particular thing, the abuse would not have occurred.
Jessie is more likely to withdraw and show signs of depression and low self-esteem, and Tony is more likely to act out and use aggression to gain some sense of control over their lives. Both are at risk of self-injury to cope with the confusion and pain. Tony, at his age, will be at risk for delinquency and substance abuse during adolescence. One of the greatest commonalities among juvenile and adult males in the criminal justice system is the experience of domestic violence in their homes.
Physical responses may include stomachaches and/or headaches, bedwetting, and sleeplessness. Jessie, at her age, may show more physical complaints than Tony, and may be more prone to depression. Because the increased risk of being direct victims of abuse as well, Tony and Jessie may show signs of injury. At this age, Tony is at particular risk of being injured while trying to intervene on behalf of Anna or Jessie. Like other adverse childhood experiences, children who grew up witnessing domestic violence are more at risk for health problems like heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression and alcoholism as adults.
Tony and Jessie may have impaired ability to concentrate and difficulty completing schoolwork, which may result in poor school performance and attendance. If the violence happens at night, Tony and Jessie may suffer from lack of sleep and fall asleep in the classroom. They may experience developmental delays in speech, motor or cognitive skills. Due to lessons learned at home, they may believe that disagreements are solved by using violence and display increased aggression with peers and adults in their lives.
In addition to the fear, confusion, shame and anger children feel, Tony and Jessie likely also truly love their dad and show, at least outwardly, an allegiance with him. Sometimes, this is out of a sense of protection, often simply because of internalized fear. The narrative of the trauma they have experienced often is not a linear one, but rather complex and confusing.
What can a caring adult who interacts with Tony, Jessie or Anna do?
Identifying signs that a child or adolescent you know or work with has witnessed domestic violence is difficult. As with all children, it is important to pay attention and ask yourself WHY the child behaves a certain way.
What could you say to Tony or Jessie?
Start building a relationship. Pay attention and demonstrate that you are a safe adult. Be sure to communicate that you will not judge. Ask open-ended questions and make calm observatory statements. I notice that you seem worried/angry/sad. Are you feeling safe at home? Is anyone close to you getting hurt by someone? I see that you have difficulty concentrating/staying awake in class. Do you want to tell me about what’s going on?
Tony or Jessie will need to hear: I believe you. No matter what happened, the abuse is not your fault. You are not alone. No one deserves to be abused. This is hard, but help is available.
Get to know professional resources within your system and in the community. Be clear about your responsibilities (child abuse reporting) and limitations, and be as honest and realistic as possible with the child about it. Note that some kids have already had contact with law enforcement, Child Protective Services and the criminal justice system and if they have had a difficult experience, may stay silent out of fear of repercussions. If you feel unequipped and unsure what to do, call a domestic violence hotline or service provider for guidance.
What could you say to Anna if you suspected that she experiences domestic violence?
Make sure she is in a safe place to talk. I am here to talk. Has David ever made you feel threatened or afraid? Do you feel safe at home? She also needs to hear: I am here to support you. I believe you. No matter what happened, the abuse is not your fault. You are not alone. I see your worth. Listen. Ask what she needs; do not tell her what to do. Let her know that there are resources available to help.
The good news is this. Children’s brains are constantly evolving, and childhood damage can be prevented or reversed — allowing children to enjoy social, emotional, cognitive and physical wellbeing long into adulthood.
To reshape the brain of a child that is impacted by trauma, or to foster resilience, safe relationships are crucial. Having just one close adult relationship – one that is protective, warm, patient – can make all the difference. A safe relationship reduces stress, helps rewire the brain, and allows Tony and Jessie to build a healthy connection with others, particularly adults.
According to the Changing Minds initiative, here are ways in which adults – parents, caretakers, teachers, coaches, and other leaders – can play a role in the healing process.
More important resources on this topic:
Information and Safety Resources
Safety Precaution When Using the Computer for Safety Information
Books & Resources for Adults
“When Dad Hurts Mom” by Lundy Bancroft
“Children Who See Too Much” by Betsy Groves
Books for Children