The psychic pain and debilitating effects, both short- and long-term, experienced by children who witness parental violence frequently goes unnoticed by others. These children are also the victims of domestic violence, even though they may not be direct targets of the abuse. They are being maltreated, whether intentionally or unintentionally, by incapacitating inattention, indifference, and/or neglect of their developmental well-being.
Observations of such cruelty between loved ones can produce enduring emotional and psychological scars of such great magnitude that children who are exposed to domestic violence (in this case, parental violence against another parent) are traumatically harmed by these acts. Their feelings and emotional responses often go unnoticed, and the enormity of their distress is overlooked or disregarded as attention is focused on the battered and the batterer. Yet their suffering and damage can be extensive, when lingering memories of violence between their parents become long-lasting burdens. Their lives, from a young age, are vulnerable to continuous dread and expectations of spontaneous terror and danger. In reaction, trust and unquestioning devotion to the parental bond and other important relationships frequently become shaken and unstable. These children, as innocent victims, too frequently carry the punishing marks of parental conflict through many trying years to come, even into adulthood.
Estimates of the number of children who witness domestic violence annually in the United States vary greatly. A Harvard Medical School report (Harvard Mental Health Letter 2004) cites between two and three million; an earlier study (Horton, Cruise, Graybill, and Cornett 1999), from three to ten million. When considering how many domestic violence occurrences go unreported, the greater number may be considered more accurate. It is likely that for many years, a vast number of children were negatively affected by these events and most went unattended. But there also is evidence of resilient children—those whose external supports, internal resources, and adaptive coping mechanisms have counteracted the expected emotional wounds of witnessing parental violence. The strengths of these children provide hope that many more can be helped to learn to avoid the anticipated fate of those less strong and hence less fortunate.
Witnessing Abuse and Violence: Children’s Maltreatment at Home
Jaffe, Wolfe, and Wilson (1990) provide a historical perspective of the public’s attitudes toward family violence in the United States, including that which affects children who witness its impact. It has only been since the 1970s that the acknowledgment of and serious concern over wife battering has been openly publicized. For the most part, family secrets of beatings and conflicts have been kept under wraps, very often ignored or neglected by police and other investigative organizations. These were ‘‘family problems’’ and considered within the private domain; therefore, they were given undeserved immunity from examination, inquiry, and prosecution. Yet the abuse was occurring widely. Langley and Levy (1977) published a telling book of this incidence and its troubling effects entitled Wife Beating: The Silent Crisis, and Walker’s 1979 expose of The Battered Woman created a stir with its identification and description of battered woman syndrome. Concern about children witnessing the brutality of one parent and the helplessness of the other began surfacing in print in the 1980s and even more so in the 1990s. Prior to this time, there was only sporadic mention of children witnessing parental violence. It had been taken for granted that children were harmed only when they themselves were physically or sexually abused.
Maltreatment of children can be the result of different factors, many of which have to do with the interaction among stressors of daily life. Consider the parent who loses his job, worries about failing his responsibilities to the family, cannot face life as it has become, and increases his drinking to temporarily forget the trouble he has caused everyone (including himself). He is depressed, guilt-ridden, angry, and frustrated. The lack of financial security due to unemployment undoubtedly exacerbates the situation. The negativity and disarming changes in mood will be felt by others around him, especially his wife and children. As a result of this discord, tempers rise, personalities clash, hurtful statements are made, and violent behaviors erupt.
Understandably, children in the crossfire of escalating parental disputes frequently become the victims of circumstances beyond their control. The fierceness and cruelty of the perpetrator of the abuse, as well as the dismaying response of the parent attacked, will compound the fears and repercussions for these children. During these periods of crisis, physical and emotional abuse and neglect replace the nurturing and expressions of affection that are displayed by caring parents. The severity of damaging effects can be profound. Studies have reported that in the aftermath, children who are observers of parental violence will suffer effects similar to those suffered by children who have themselves been physically maltreated (Fantuzzo, McDermott, and Noone 1999; Kilpatrick and Williams 1997). Research findings have also shown that it is not unusual for these child witnesses to be at greater risk of being targets of physical abuse (Chamberlain 2001). They live in an environment where danger might spontaneously erupt.
For a young child observing parental assaults, safety and security are jeopardized, and inescapable feelings of vulnerability surface periodically. Severe problems coping with everyday life can develop across the life span, regardless of a child’s age at the time of the violent events. The results of witnessing or even hearing violent interactions between parents can be felt during a temporary lull in such attacks and even after the violence, or the children’s exposure to it, has ended. The development of behavioral, physical, emotional, and social problems speaks to the enormity of the distress these children experience. Regressive and maladaptive reactions to traumatic acts of violence, particularly by and toward intimate family members, are notable. For example, children may respond by returning to the behaviors of an earlier period of development, such as bed-wetting, thumb-sucking, and temper tantrums. Sleep disturbances, nightmares, anxiety, irritability, depression, and recurrent flashbacks of traumatic events may be all-encompassing (Burman and Allen- Meares 1994). These symptoms have been described as evidence of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can result from bearing witness to horrific sights (Graham-Bermann and Levendosky 1998).
Consequently, it is not surprising that adjustment problems may emerge in reaction to the traumas observed and/or experienced in the form of disrespectful, disturbing, and disruptive acting-out behaviors at home, school, or in the neighborhood. Often mistakenly attributed to other motives and reasons, these forms of conduct disorders should initiate an investigation into the child’s possible exposure to domestic violence. If overlooked, impairments in functioning may occur in teen and even adult years. Environmental cues can serve as reminders of past traumas, thereby arousing images of the suppressed turmoil. Such intrusions of memories of abusive events into consciousness can be unrelenting. A movie, a television show, a book, a few lines from a story, or a photo can tap such memories. However, it should be emphasized that much depends on the seemingly innate capabilities, learned coping behaviors, and extent of buffering supports and aids available to lessen the damaging influence of the past on present and future functioning. In this manner, the stress-producing and debilitating symptoms of PTSD can thus be mitigated.
Numerous theories can be explored that would help to explain behaviors, events, and phenomena interrelated with themes of domestic violence involving child witnesses. Theoretical frameworks assist in making sense of the complexity of human behaviors and attitudes and their relationship to the world around them. Applying several well-known theories on learning and early life span development to a typical child witness’s experience can serve as a guide to assessments and interventions. These theories highlight the importance of early care, stability, and security in developing sound mental health and satisfactory performance throughout the life span.
Social Learning Theory
How behaviors are learned in families is aptly demonstrated by viewing parental models and the offspring who emulate their actions. Bandura (1977) developed the concept of social learning that emphasizes modeling, imitation, and observational learning as noteworthy aspects of acquiring behaviors. Children are highly influenced by the people closest to them, especially parental figures and other caretakers. Exposure to intimate violence during the developmental years could thus create a pattern of paralyzing fear, numbing detachment, and the repetition of abuse in present and future years. This pattern is illustrated by the cycle of violence that permeates from one generation to the next (Burman and Allen-Meares 1994).
A child observing the beatings her mother endured might develop an intense fear that, like her home environment, the world outside is also dangerous. This in turn leads the child to believe that safety and love are not assured and that women are powerless and helpless against the dominance of men, who are generally stronger and larger than they are. It may explain the child witness’s timidity and desire to isolate herself rather than play and socialize with others. She feels more secure in her own world of daydreams, devoid of the pain and suffering she observed her mother experiencing. When reality is too stressful, creating a fantasy world may be a coping mechanism for the child who witnesses parental violence. The extent and duration of the child’s detachment and ability to withstand these fears can depend on the strengths the child sees in the parent confronting the abuse. The abused parent who protects the child and herself by seeking help and finding a way out of their hostile and dangerous environment serves as a good role model for the child to emulate.
John Bowlby’s contribution to early life development comes from his research into bonding between infants and mothers, who are seen as the primary caregivers (McMillen 1992). The theory accentuates the importance of nurturing, responsive, and stable relationships that develop during a child’s early exploration and interaction with others in his or her environment. Bowlby proposed that a secure attachment between mother and child is necessary for the child’s psychological and emotional health and well-being.
During domestic violence episodes, parents are unavailable to allay their children’s fears and attend to their needs. Witnessing and reacting to parental violence can elicit extreme anxiety, disbelief, and loathing in children. Depending on the child’s age, helplessness and guilt at not being able to intervene and stop the abuse of a loved one can become too much to bear. It is not unusual for such experiences to provoke confused loyalty and devotion toward either or both parents, as the strength of the attachment and trust that had been developed invariably wavers. It creates a growing emotional and physical distance in the child that increases the probability of the impairment of present and future relationships outside the home. The child’s sense of safety and trust can be restored if the battering ends.
Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development
Actively resolving psychosocial crises throughout the life span (from infancy through old age) is necessary for the development and continuation of a healthy personality and identity, according to Erik Erikson (1982). As would be expected, the foundation for the ability to resolve crises in later stages of life is developed in the early psychosocial stages, from infancy until school age (six years old). These are the years when children are home more often, becoming aware of their surroundings and learning a sense of right and wrong. Under healthy and affirming conditions, their sense of trust with reliable caregivers is strengthened. This sets the stage for building attachments and trusting relationships in the future, which is very important for optimal functioning. During these preschool years, emerging self-confidence, autonomy, and ego strength result in an independent ability to make choices and be self-directed (Seifert, Hoffnung, and Hoffnung 2000). However, if the child is being raised in a punitive, abusive, and/ or neglectful home, the development of the child’s ability to overcome psychological and social barriers and conflicts can be thwarted.
The ability of the child witness to develop trusting relationships and rapport with others could be hampered even in adulthood. The child has been subjected to viewing and hearing the cruelty between his or her parental role models. The child witness may come to believe that this is the way adults settle conflicts; this makes it difficult for the child to internalize a sense of right and wrong, justice and compromise. A female child who witnesses the abuse of her mother may identify with her mother’s experience and might correlate being a female to being a victim and accepting the passive role. For the child witness to gain the ego strength and self-confidence to solve problems would depend on a satisfactory resolution of the family crises, in which safety and security would be attained.
The Therapeutic Experience
Therapeutic services for witnesses of parental battering are critically needed. The consequences of neglecting this aspect of a child’s family experience can weigh heavily on him or her. Children have various ways of expressing their feelings about family violence; some may not be directly linked to the violent episodes. There is the likelihood that images of the violence have been internalized, whether this has been openly discussed with the child or not. Therefore, erratic behaviors and symptoms of acute emotional change or impairment at home, school, a shelter (where children accompany a parent), or another public setting should be considered signs of possible traumatic experiences in the household. These phenomena must be assessed in a safe environment, where trust and rapport with the child can be established. Assuring the child that he or she will be protected and have the freedom to explore memories and emotions without negative repercussions is crucial to encouraging the child’s self-disclosure. When a child’s family bonds and trust have already been violated, this becomes quite a challenge to overcome.
Play therapy with dolls, expressive art, storytelling, games, and photographs may initiate discussion of painful feelings associated with the abuse witnessed. Carlson (2000) emphasizes the importance of assisting children to acknowledge the violence in their homes and to realize that they are not to blame for these harmful actions. Treatment should include instructions in problem solving and ways of taking safety precautions, in simple, easily understood terms and age-appropriate language. A young child can be taught to call 911 in times of need. Running to a neighbor’s house for help, while making sure it is safe to do so, is also an important strategy to teach these children.
The child witness might experience confusion and guilt resulting from competing feelings of anger and loyalty toward the parent who instigated the violence. Working with the child witness requires a nonjudgmental conveyance of an understanding of the difficulty he or she is placed in and the assurance that it is okay to sustain regard for this parent, while decrying the abusive behaviors. Worrying about the safety of the abused parent will place a heavy burden on the child. Paradoxically, the child might harbor displaced feelings of anger and shame toward the victimized parent, who may be viewed as weak and ineffective. Assisting the abused parent to take charge of the situation and engage in constructive decision making and problem solving can help turn this parent into a strong role model for the child to emulate. Therefore, empowering the victimized parent to recognize and utilize his or her own strengths in making plans to stop the violence and secure safety for him/herself and the children is of utmost importance. In addition to individual and group counseling, both the parent and the child should be referred to physical, mental, and social resources in the community. These resources can offer much needed ongoing supportive structures.
The Fallacy of ‘‘No Place Like Home’’
For too many vulnerable children and their caretakers, the home environment lacks safety and security. Communities are plagued with violence, not only in the streets but also in private, in homes where unresolved mental health issues and reactions to stressors are played out. Domestic violence arising from relationship conflicts, poverty, crime, unemployment, substance abuse, discrimination, and unequal opportunities are problems that can be explosive, in both urban and rural areas. When anger and hostility escalate, especially as a result of uncontrollable factors, those in dependent and subordinate positions become convenient targets.
Severe abuse knows no borders. Women and children in upscale neighborhoods will experience similar dangers and fears to those experienced by women and children in less affluent neighborhoods (Weitzman 2000). Nevertheless, abusers’ aggressive behaviors are more likely to stay hidden when protective mechanisms at their disposal serve to maintain reputations, allay the stigma, and keep the perpetrators safer from prosecution.
Increasingly, the media bring disturbing images into view. Over time, people can become desensitized to violence as a result of overexposure to such images. However, child witnesses to parental violence are exposed to violent acts not just on television but in their own lives, between the people they most love and depend on. Witnessing parental violence is traumatic, and images and memories of such violence can stay with and harm child witnesses throughout their lives.
The necessity of prevention and early recognition of domestic violence and maltreatment of children cannot be overemphasized. Helping parents resolve their problems and conflicts in a constructive manner, while learning effective parenting skills, is critical to improving their children’s ability to function, as well as their own. Whether it is used for a complete or a temporary separation, visiting a shelter is an important first step for immediate safety and supportive resources. It provides a caring, supportive environment and ‘‘time out’’ to contemplate beneficial choices that can alter the victim’s present and future situation. Recognizing and acknowledging personal strengths can carry them through, despite the calamities experienced. To all who suffer, the journey out of harm’s way takes a measure of hope and optimism and the reaching out for assistance to acquire a better life.
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