Living Well: Domestic violence and children How to recognize, understand, help
By Lori Decker
Behavioral Health Specialist, Ministry Medical Group Tomahawk
Nearly one-third of American women have reported being abused by their husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives. (According to the Commonwealth Fund, Health Concerns Across a Woman’s Lifespan: 1998 Survey of Women’s Health, May 1999)
Over 40,000 persons are served by Wisconsin domestic abuse programs every year (Domestic Abuse Report, WI Department of Children and Families, 2007).
Now think about the children who live in these environments and are witness to the violence. These children are affected by the experience in various ways. For some children severe traumatic reactions develop especially if they are among the many who are also victims of child abuse. Other children may show great resiliency. The extent of the risk to children can depend on such factors as age of the child, the severity of the abuse and the length and frequency of the abuse.
“Children are not just eye witnesses to battering. They are actively involved in trying to understand the abuse, predicting when it will happen, protecting themselves, their mother or their siblings, and worrying about the consequences. They live in homes where the dynamics of their households are dominated by domestic violence. Fear and secrecy dominate family relationships and survival becomes the primary goal of non-abusing family members. The focus on day to day survival may leave little room for fun and relaxation, meeting basic needs or planning for the future. They grow up in a climate of anxiety, vigilance, helplessness and unpredictability rather than one of structure, nurture and emotional and physical safety.” (Wisconsin Department of Children and Families Domestic Violence Handbook-2010).
Children can believe the abuse is somehow their fault, they may feel they are alone and there is no one who understands them, they may develop negative beliefs about themselves and others, the world may be seen as a very dangerous and unpredictable place, and may be fearful of talking to someone about the violence. Children may also become increasingly aggressive, demonstrate behavioral and academic challenges within the school, may have difficulties concentrating and may be described as impulsive, they may seem depressed and anxious, demonstrate low self-esteem, and appear fearful and withdrawn. Children growing up in violent homes may demonstrate Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms. School age children may also have frequent complaints of stomach aches, headaches, sleep problems, bedwetting, and excessive clinging. Teenagers may develop drug and alcohol problems.
So, what can you do? Remember that what is best for the non-abusing parent and the child is ensuring safety. Children need to have and know the safe places they can go to. Children need to be told by the non-abusing parent and other positive and nurturing adults that they are loved and the violence is not their fault. Children need to know that it is alright to talk about their feelings including feelings of anger and rage. Children need to know that anger is normal but violence is not.
For domestic violence shelters, support and additional information please contact H.A.V.E.N. (Lincoln County) at 715.536.1300 or 855.888.9272, or Tri-County Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (Oneida, Vilas, and Forest Counties) at 715.362.6841 or 800.236.1222.
For more information on Ministry Health Care, please visit ministryhealth.org.