Friday, October 25, 2013

How Domestic Violence Affects Children (and What We Can do to Help)

The following facts were compiled by the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence (NRCDV) in the Information Packet: Children Exposed to Intimate Partner Violence:
The maltreatment of children and violence against women often go hand in hand.  As many as half a million children may be encountered by police during domestic violence arrests [each year].  There is an overlap of 30 to 60 percent between violence against children and violence against women in the same families.  (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Safe from the start: taking action on children exposed to violence. (November 2000).  Publication No. NCJ182789) Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.)

Research indicates that males exposed to domestic violence as children are more likely to engage in domestic violence as adults, and females are more likely to be victims as adults.  (Whitfield, 2003)
Children who witness domestic violence and are physically abused are at risk for increased levels of emotional and psychological maladjustment than children who only witness violence and are not abused (Carlson, 2000; Edleson, 1999; Hughes et al, 2001).
Children who live with domestic violence face increased risks:  the risk of exposure to traumatic events, the risk of neglect, the risk of being directly abused, and the risk of losing one or both of their parents.  All of these may lead to negative outcomes for children and may affect their wellbeing, safety, and stability (Carlson, 2000; Edleson, 1999; Rossman, 2001).

The Domestic Violence Resource Center has compiled this list of ways DV can affect children.
Children and Domestic Violence
Every child has different coping mechanisms and will react differently to violence. The following is a list of commonly identified feelings and behaviors of children who have been exposed to domestic violence.
Fear of:
  • violence
  • father / all men
  • abandonment
  • night time

Anger at:
  • father / other men
  • mother (for not preventing violence)
  • self (for being unable to protect mom)
Guilt for:
  • the violence. Children are egocentric, so they feel responsible for and guilty about the violence.
  • being disloyal to family and friends
  • having negative feelings about one or both parents
  • Conflict over feelings toward the parents.
  • Unpredictable reactions from adults lead the child to be unable to trust them.
  • Belief that relationships equal violence.
Learning disabilities
  • Lack of emotional stability at home inhibits learning.
  • Fixation at the developmental level at which trauma occurred.
  • withdrawal
  • exaggerated attention-seeking
  • negative reactions to men
  • separation anxiety
  • bedtime fears
  • school phobia
  • acting out
  • aggression
  • swearing
  • age-inappropriate temper tantrums
  • self-fulfilling prophecy: the belief that “I’m bad.” leads to acting out, which leads to punishment, which reinforces the belief
  • loss of motivation at school
  • low self-esteem because of believing that “It’s my fault I got hit.”
  • ambivalent behavior
  • testing adults
  • confused belief systems
  • inability to concentrate at school
  • sleepiness due to staying awake at night
  • regressive behaviors
  • strong resilience
  • maturity
  • well-developed sense of responsibility
  • bonds between siblings
  • unusual sensitivity
  • rejection of violent behavior
So  . . . How do we as foster parents or caregivers or teachers (or whatever the case may be) help support the children in our care who have experienced domestic violence?

I have learned a few simple things:

1)  Use a "we" message when setting expectations about home/school rules.
2) Validate the child's feelings if they act aggressively.
3)  Offer alternatives to aggression.
4)  Be sensitive to raising your voice.

Here's an example or two for using each of these tips:

1)  Use a "we" message when setting expectations about home (or school) rules.
I admit that sometimes my first instinct when any of our foster children have acted out aggressively is to say. "Hey- Stop That!"  or "Don't Hit Her!" 

Children coming from an environment of domestic violence already have enough SHAME to deal with, so rather than using an accusatory, blaming tone with them (which will just make them feel worse) try setting boundaries but explaining that this is a rule which applies to everyone in the household or classroom- not just them. 
For example, rather than saying, "You're not allowed to hit in this house" calmly but firmly explain  "We don't hit in this house."  And "we" means everyone- parents and children.  Otherwise there would be a huge double standard.  Give concrete examples if that's easier for younger children to understand, such as, "In our home, Daddies don't hit mommies, mommies don't hit daddies, mommies and daddies don't hit or yell at children, children don't hit/bite/kick mommies and daddies or other children."
2) Validate the child's feelings if they act aggressively.
As noted in the "Feelings" Section of the DVRC Children and Domestic Violence List above, children coming from domestic violence can understandably have a lot of anger issues.  Anger in itself isn't bad, but it's what the child does with those angry feelings which can be harmful.  In addition, children may not know how to react to anger or frustration or feeling insecure without resorting to aggression* if that's all they've been shown from the adults in their lives.  Validate the child's feelings rather than shaming them and then redirect their actions.
* Children's brains aren't fully developed (Duh- Thanks for the News Flash!) so they are bound to be more immature than adults when dealing with conflict by resorting to name-calling or hitting or throwing a temper tantrum when they don't get their way or become stressed.  Basically, they're acting with the "primitive" parts of their brain and have not yet learned to engage in more peaceful ways of conflict resolution or to deal with upsetting emotions and situations proactively.  What is even more troubling is children who also suffer the effects of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and/or drug exposure and who thus have a biological predisposition to struggle with impulse control because of their impaired brain development in addition to suffering from the damaging effects of domestic violence from a purely socialization standpoint.  In other words, as if the "nurture" effects of domestic violence aren't enough, some individuals have additional "nature" or biological factors which compound the gravity of their situation.  Does that make sense?
Validating statements might include:

 "Wow- you're really angry right now, aren't you?"  or
"I can sense you're getting frustrated."  or
"Can you help me to understand why you're so upset?"

There's no need to even analyze their feelings or break into a mini counseling session afterwards (which I, for one, might be tempted to do by nature) but sometimes just the act of validating their feelings is enough for the child to separate their actions from their feelings and feel somewhat "understood" by an adult who shows concern.
Another plus of validating feelings of anger in the child is that "anger" is one of those emotions which can often be used to mask other feelings such as hurt or fear.  If a child begins to feel validated by a trusted adult, they are more likely to open up or explore their underlying feelings which is much more productive or healthy than, say. lashing out on others or withdrawing,
3)  Offer alternatives to aggression. 
This suggestion goes hand in hand with the previous one.  First, let the child know that it's okay to be angry, but it's not okay to hit/bite/scream at others, etc. 

THEN, offer an alternative to getting their energy out. 
 "Do you want to jump on the trampoline?" 

 "Are you so angry that you feel like hitting something?  Let's hit your pillow or see how far you can throw or kick this ball!" 

 (Another reason why contact and group sports are a fabulous outlet for at-risk kids or ANY kids for that matter!)
4)  Be sensitive to raising your voice.
Many people coming from a situation of violence, abuse, or trauma are bound to be a little more sensitive to raised voices or escalated noises- even to the point of being considered "hyper vigilant" in their reactions.  Remember- the only group of people shown to have higher rates of PTSD than veterans are children in foster care!   What a sad finding- nobody's home life should be as traumatic as a war zone, but the psychological effects can be eerily similar.
This may seem like a silly example, but I vividly remember one day when my husband raised his voice to me (not because he was yelling at me or trying to be mean, but because we were a bit rushed with our schedules and he was trying to remind me to hurry and get in the shower and get ready).  My husband's raised voice didn't seem like a big deal to me, nor did I take it personally- but I could immediately sense a physiological change in our foster baby- who was only an infant at the time.  Some may say that her reaction was just a coincidence or that any child would have reacted that way, but when we thought about the things she may have heard and seen from her family background (we had a fairly good idea- but certainly not the whole story)  it was a good reminder to be careful when raising our voices- no matter the reason.
Any other tips on helping children to deal with or preventing domestic violence?

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