Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Collateral Damage: What Children Say About Domestic Violence

Domestic Violence persists as a complicated and serious problem across geography, age, income, race, gender, religion and ethnicities. Women experience more than 4 million physical assaults and rapes because of their partners, and men are victims of nearly 3 million physical assaults. Eighty-five percent of domestic violence victims are women.girl domestic violence

Children have no control over domestic violence. In fact, they are the collateral damage of the unregulated verbal and physical abuse of the adults in their lives. Michael Paymar, author of Violent No More: Helping Men End Domestic Abuse, reports that children are present during 80% of the assaults against their mothers.

A newly published nationwide study of 517 children who had witnessed domestic violence, including beating, hitting or kicking of a parent or caregiver, is one of the first studies that actually asks what children have to say about domestic violence.

What Children Say About Domestic Violence

In this study by Sherry Hamby, David Finkelhor and Heather Turner, researchers conducted confidential interviews with parents and caregivers who best knew the routines and responses of their young children (under 10 years) and they conducted confidential interviews directly with children age 10 to 17 years old.  One of the measures used included eight items from the Juvenile Victimization Questionnaire (JVQ), which included questions like:

“At any time in your life, did you SEE a parent get pushed slapped, hit, punched or beat up by another parent or their boyfriend or girlfriend?”  “ At any time in your life, did one of your parents threaten to hurt another parent and it seemed they might really get hurt?”

The findings underscore the traumatic impact that witnessing violence has upon children.

  • The children reported that many of these incidents were severe and frightening.
  • Half of those exposed to physical assault among other family members said it was their most frightening experience ever.
  • More than a quarter of the children feared for their own safety.
  • More than 1 in 3 witnessed incidents that resulted in physical injury to another family member.
  • Although only one in 75 children were physically hurt, there report of fear and anxiety was similar to when children experience abuse themselves.

Collateral Damage

It becomes understandable that research finds that children who witness domestic violence are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, nightmares, physical complaints, teen dating violence and disruptions in schoolwork than other children.

Psychologically and neurophysiologically, witnessing the danger, injury, and violence suffered by one parent, and the violent behavior and harm inflicted by the other parent, threatens a child’s source of survival. Suddenly, there is no life-line.

Attachment theory and the neurochemistry associated with the parent/child connection informs us that from early infancy, children who are frightened and in danger need the parental connection, touch and attunement to soothe them and help them regulate their terror and fear.

“It’s ok–I am right next to you.”  “ Let’s hold hands and take a walk.”

In face of domestic violence, the people who are supposed to soothe and protect are the people who have become perpetrators and victims. While most mothers will do anything to shield their child, it is the look of terror or pain on a mother’s face that is very frightening to her child. How do mothers cope with their child’s terror when they are being threatened or assaulted.

“ Mom, are you ok?

A 2003 study found that children are more likely to intervene when they witness severe violence against a parent – which can place a child at great risk for injury or even death.

Overall,  domestic violence leaves a child ” alone”  when he/she is most terrified.

 “Who will protect me?”

The Legacy of Domestic Violence

Adding to the verbalized fear and terror by children who witness domestic violence, is the legacy of violence they carry into their own adult lives. Recent research on domestic violence suggests that exposure to inter-parental violence (IPV) leaves one at risk of both being a perpetrator or a victim.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Regardless of where parents are on the continuum from marital stress to physical violence, the wish to protect children can motivate parents to reflect on their behavior and start taking steps to make change or seek help toward that goal.

Controlling and Reducing Domestic Violence

Most couples argue and disagree. The question is the template that they model for their children. Is it a model of dominance, threats and physical violence with impunity or one compatible with love and safety? Consider the following:

  • Is regulation of anger possible?
  • Are support, affection and love displayed to partners and children?
  • Is it possible to agree to disagree, take a walk to cool off, defer to each other, apologize, and let it go?
  • Is it safe for parents and children to make mistakes?
  • Is it possible to be upset with someone without disrespect, disdain or threat?
  • Is there awareness of the dangerous connection of alcohol and violence?
  • Is there awareness that winning by instilling fear usually results in losing the relationship and eventually the kids?
  • Is there validation by parents that their yelling or threats must be frightening to the children and acknowledgement of their need to get some help?
  • Is there realization that using your child as your confident, adversary or sounding board in the aftermath of domestic violence is no gift to your child? – It actually adds insult to injury.
  • Is there courage to call for help when the situation is dangerous? (Domestic Violence Hotline)
  • Is there courage to take responsibility and apologize? Is there new behavior that reflects that apology?
  • Is there courage to take responsibility for violence, seek help and find a treatment program to end your domestic abuse?
  • Is there courage to use strategies and goals, community, occupational and spiritual options to change the relationship, make safety plans if needed, and insure the children’s safety?

Will you do whatever it takes to guarantee your children a childhood of safety, love and laughter?

Listen in – Attorney Toby Kleinman discusses “Child Custody and Domestic Violence: Are the Courts Protecting Kids?” on Psych Up Live 4/13/17 live by 7PM Podcast available anytime.