Domestic Violence from a Child's Point of View
Every child is part of a family, so it follows that family life and family circumstances will have an impact on the child. Because children are still developing, the situation at home will shape their understanding and views of the world and the people around them. Children are not just passive onlookers—in living their everyday life and forming relationships with family members, they actively take part. Therefore every child, regardless of his or her age or degree of involvement, will be influenced in some way if there is violence at home.
Safety and security
Children require safety and security in their lives to thrive. They require consistency, routine and the ability to trust that their basic needs will be met; for children living in homes with domestic violence, this is often not the case.
Babies and toddlers may suffer significant disruptions to their daily routine and basic needs of regular eating and sleeping schedules. The mother may have no control or access to money, making her unable to buy enough food for her children.
Children become the unintentional victims of domestic violence.
Many women have recalled instances when they were holding their child and were attacked by their partner or when their children have intervened in an attempt to protect her from violence.
Boundaries and limit setting
Children need boundaries and limits; they need to learn what sort of behaviour is acceptable and what is unacceptable.
When there are no limits on an abusive parent's behaviour, it is difficult for children to learn these themselves. Some children living in a home where there is domestic violence have extreme limits placed on their behaviour to try and keep the peace, not upset their father and prevent violence. Children are often prevented from making their own choices and trying out new skills.
A child's sense of self and self-control may be undermined as the trauma causes confusion, uncertainty, and restriction to their development, independence and self-worth. Children require an encouraging and positive environment where they are valued to achieve a positive self-image.
Secrecy and Silence
For children experiencing domestic violence, the dynamics of secrecy and the ‘conspiracy of silence’ can play a major role in their lives. The violence at home may not be referred to or discussed with family members or friends. Children may keep their life at home a secret out of feelings of shame or fear. Older children may be particularly aware of the stigma attached to the issue and consequently experience feelings of degradation and humiliation. Children may not be able to or may not want to bring their friends home, or socialise with their peers, which may affect their ability to form relationships with other children.
Tension and Stress
Children who live in a home where domestic violence exists live with chronic and heightened levels of tension and stress. Even if they don’t witness specific acts of physical abuse, they are aware of, and feel, the obvious tension and distress caused by those acts. Additionally, the perpetrator often uses verbal abuse like shaming and blaming and sometimes also physical violence with the children to control their behaviour. Some children become hyper-vigilant, always on the watch and at the ready to provide protection for their mother, siblings and themselves.
As a result, children may work to build coping strategies to avoid and control the violence. This places overwhelming and impossible demands on themselves. The major stress derives from the fact that the person hurt is someone they love and that the abuser is also a loved and trusted figure, so they may have ambivalent and confusing feelings towards one or both parent figures.
They may be fearful that the hurt was intentional, that it happened in their home and that there was nothing they could do to prevent it, so they can feel they may be responsible. They may struggle to maintain their natural affection for their parents while also experiencing feelings of dismay and resentment at their parents’ behaviour.
A violent home is characterised by fear, powerlessness and despair. Children may be in a constant state of fear for both their safety and that of their mother or siblings. Trust, which is essential for healthy development, can be replaced by anxiety and vulnerability. A child loses the sense that their family is safe and their home a sanctuary. They may begin to develop a sense that the world around them is insecure and unpredictable, which can adversely affect all of their relationships. Children who live in an atmosphere of chronic abuse face the daily pressure of being in a state of permanent alert and feelings of powerlessness, sometimes accompanied by a fear of death.
Independence and socialising
Some children living in a home where there is domestic violence experience insecurity. They may find it difficult to learn the necessary skills to make decisions for themselves, learn co-operation, make friends or use positive communication skills. They may not know how to resolve conflict using respectful and effective communication skills or problem solving and are unable to compromise.
Instead they may resort to verbal abuse, threats or even violence. They may find themselves isolated as friendships are not encouraged or they may be too embarrassed to have friends visit. They may also be in a position where they feel they must keep the family’s secret at all costs and feel unable to develop relationships with others.
Other children may spend less and less time at home to escape the abuse. They may get their emotional, physical and holistic needs met through their friends and their families or other mentors at school or social/sporting clubs.
Isolation is a vital strategy in the perpetrator’s effective use of power and control. If children are isolated from adults outside their family, they might internalise the concepts of worthlessness and being unlovable which accompany violence from a very early age.
Isolated children are also unable to develop and practise their social skills. Children may find it difficult to set healthy personal boundaries and to understand and respect the boundaries of people around them. They may not have the opportunity to learn appropriate problem-solving methods or acceptable conflict resolution strategies. Younger children frequently don’t know how to play, and older children may lack the ability to make or maintain friendships.
Children experiencing domestic violence seek to understand and find meaning in their experience. They search for the way to deal with the difficult and frightening situations which confront them. This may be influenced by the role they play within their family. This role can be taken on by the child or imposed by others and is part of the unique way each child adapts and copes with the situation they live in. This explains how different children in the same family can have markedly different understandings of what happened in their family.
Even after they have left the violent situation and immediate danger, children often continue to fill these roles, because it is the only way they know of coping. For example, a child may assume household tasks and care for his/her siblings, things that are outside the normal responsibilities of a child.