It was night when my son stood by my bed. He stood on guard to protect me, in case his father would walk in the room to hurt me, as he had for the past few weeks. I told my ten-year-old son to go to sleep, but he refused. He said, “Mama, you rest, I have to protect you.” I watched my son as he stood by my bed in the darkness of the room. He stood staring at the closed door, waiting and waiting. We were lucky his father didn’t come in the room that night.
Each year an estimated 3.3 million children in the U.S. witness violence by a family member against their mother. Exposure to that kind of trauma can harm a child’s spirit and mind bringing along many health conditions.
Children can react in many different ways when being raised in a household where there is domestic abuse. A few of the effects of abuse on children can be:
- Physical harm by being in the violence. Research shows that 30-60% of children suffer direct abuse when living in a home where there is domestic abuse.
- Children learn to behave from the examples set before them.
- Domestic violence teaches children negative things about relationships.
Children who live with domestic violence and abuse may:
- Feel responsible or guilty about the event,
- Want to be left alone,
- Seem sadder than normal,
- Become more aggressive or want to fight,
- Seem distracted,
- Have nightmares,
- Eat more or less,
- Have trouble concentrating,
- Have headaches or stomach aches.
Parents may find that it can be very hard to talk with their children about the abuse they have seen or experienced. For the most part, conversations with children cannot be planned. From experience, conversations sometimes just happen and when they do make the most of them.
If you open the conversation, make your child feel safe to talk. Make them feel that they don’t have to be alone with their thoughts and worries.
Let them know you care and will listen to them. Convey that violence is not okay and that it isn’t their fault.
Assure them that you will do everything you can to keep them safe and that it’s not their job to fix what happened in the family. Support and acknowledge their feelings and experience. Use words that you know they can understand. Throughout your conversation, keep your emotions in check. Talk calmly and confidently. A calm tone sends the message that you are in charge. Tell them you are there for them and they can rest on you.
Growing up in a home where domestic violence is the norm can skew the perception of a healthy relationship. Children growing up in an abusive home will not see adults loving each other, having respect towards each other, or working together to resolve problems and differences.
Quite the opposite, they will witness negative feelings, words, and actions. They may witness anything from name-calling to violence.
If this is the only example of a relationship, they often grow-up thinking this is normal and may end up in an unhealthy relationship.
According to the America Psychological Association, “A child’s exposure to the father abusing the mother is the strongest risk factor for transmitting violent behavior from one generation to the next. Children who experience domestic violence are 2-3 times more likely to repeat the cycle of violence in adulthood, as the victim or the perpetrator.
So what can we do?
As parents we need to set up guidelines for our children:
- Examine your own values–-how do you expect men and women to act? How should people behave when they disagree?
- Give your kids clear examples of what is appropriate behavior in a relationship
- Teach them that when there is conflict and things cannot always be settled, take a break and cool down before feelings get hurt.
- Teach anger control. Help your kids recognize their personal warnings of anger. Teach them avenues to calm down.
- Teach problem-solving. When confronted with a tough issue, have your child determine what exactly happened and what may have caused the situation. Ask them several different ways in which it could have been resolved.
- Explain the “Danger-Zone” by teaching them to recognize that thoughts of aggression are signals of frustration that need to be acknowledged and dealt with. Help your kids understand that violence in a relationship is a serious problem that is likely to continue and escalate.
- Be the Ultimate Role Model. Children learn by observing those around them, especially their parents. It is critical that you respect yourself, your partner, and other people.
Our children are stronger than what we think. I want you to know that as we take our children out from witnessing abuse, they will heal. As parents, we have the power to offer our children a safe place to grow and develop healthy relationships.
At the beginning of this article, I shared a little of how domestic violence was affecting my son; three years later he is doing better. He still suffers from anxiety, but that is far and in between. We discovered avenues that have helped him release his fears and anxiety. Golf and cooking have become our best friends.
Grasp every opportunity life gives you, to talk to your children about domestic violence. May we plant a seed of hope and knowledge that will take them to a future without violence.
Below I have listed resources that you can tap into to talk to your child after they have witnessed abuse.
How to Talk to Your Kids About Really Important Things by Charles E. Schaefer
Keep Talking: A Mother-Daughter Guide to the Pre-Teen Years by Lynda Madison