Last month, part one of DVSN’s blog series “Concerning Children” focused on the horrors of child abuse, when a minor is directly abused or neglected. This month’s continuation will delve more deeply into the related issue of childhood domestic violence. As differentiated in the previous post, childhood domestic violence (CDV) refers to situations where minors are not directly abused or neglected but are exposed to domestic violence in the home. Though it may seem like the lesser of the two evils, CDV can still be deeply traumatizing and have profound impacts that lead to lifelong consequences.

Infographic with a smartphone and the words, "A survey of callers to the National Domestic Violence Hotline found that 85% reported that a partner or ex-partner had called them crazy, 73% said that a partner or ex-partner had deliberately done things to make them feel they were going crazy or losing their mind, 50% reported that a partner or ex-partner had threatened to report to the aurthorities that they were crazy as a way to keep them from getting certain important goals such as custody of the children, medication, or protective orders

How CDV May Manifest

Childhood domestic violence generally falls into three categories: seeing or hearing the abuse of a parent (a word being used here to encompass any parental figure in the household, such as a stepparent, guardian, or parent’s partner), witnessing consequences of domestic violence, and experiencing police involvement. Children may see abuse by being in the same room when it happens. Even if they are not direct visual witnesses, children are often elsewhere in the home and can hear raised voices, physical altercations, items breaking, etc. If they don’t see or hear the actual incident, they are likely to see evidence of the consequences afterwards, such as injuries to the victim, damage to property, or the involvement of police. They may also be aware of consequences that can’t be seen, such as a change in attitude of one or both parents and tension between them.

Infographic with a smartphone and the words, "A survey of callers to the National Domestic Violence Hotline found that 85% reported that a partner or ex-partner had called them crazy, 73% said that a partner or ex-partner had deliberately done things to make them feel they were going crazy or losing their mind, 50% reported that a partner or ex-partner had threatened to report to the aurthorities that they were crazy as a way to keep them from getting certain important goals such as custody of the children, medication, or protective orders

A less often identified manifestation of childhood domestic violence is when perpetrators use children to harm or manipulate their victims. Children may be asked to spy on a parent or report their activities or conversations to the abuser. Abusers can manipulate victims by negatively impacting the relationship between the victim and their children, such as always being the “fun” parent who lets the kids do whatever they want while the victim is forced to be the disciplinarian or deliberately terrorizing the victim in front of the children in order to make that parent seem weak. The abuser may attempt to control the victim by threatening to prevent them from seeing their children or threatening to get custody of the children if the victim leaves. And, whether through direct instruction or instinctive imitation, abusers may teach children in the household that this is how relationships work; that they should expect to grow up to be an abuser to their partner or to be abused by their partner.

Prevalence & Perceptions

Researchers estimate that between 3.3 million and 10 million children are exposed to adult domestic violence each year, with one researcher estimating as many as one third of children in the US are exposed to intimate partner violence at some point in their childhood or adolescence. According to the Childhood Domestic Violence Association (CDVA), 1 in 8 people experience CDV globally. 15 million children are actively impacted today in the US alone, plus 40 million adults in the US today experienced childhood domestic violence in their youth. Court statistics show that children are present during domestic or intimate partner violence incidents in 36% of cases. Of those children, 60% directly witnessed the violence. It is also important to be aware that most of these statistics refer to cases of physical abuse and do not account for children in households where other types of abuse are occurring. When considering all forms of domestic violence, the number of children experiencing CDV is likely much higher. (RCDV:CPC) The CDVA estimates that when accounting for all incidents of domestic violence, not just those that result in court involvement, children are present at more than 50% of occurrences.

upset young woman sits in a chair crying while her boyfriend stands over her yelling aggressively

In a Childhood Domestic Violence Association survey of what people think of when they hear the term “domestic violence”, only 10% of respondents thought of children in any capacity. Even when thinking about children in abusive households, many people believe that they don’t know what is going on. Parental victims often actively attempt to shield their children from witnessing or knowing anything about it, and most believe they are at least somewhat successful in this. In fact, 90% of parents who are currently experiencing domestic violence believe that their children do not know what is going on. (DomesticShelters) However, when questioned, 90% of children living in households with domestic violence indicated they were well aware of the abuse. Children notice and pick up on a lot more than parents often realize. Even if they do not know exactly what is happening, they know that something is not right. Similarly, though a child or baby may be too young to actively remember what happened, psychologists attest there is an imprint left from living through violence at home. Brian F. Martin, psychologist and founder of CDVA, asserts that 100% of children exposed to domestic violence are affected by it.

mature woman lying curled up on her side in bed, covering her face with her hands

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

A 1995-1997 CDC-Kaiser study of over 17,000 people investigated the effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs. It identified ten key ACEs: poverty, divorce (later broadened to loss of a parent through separation, divorce, or death), parental incarceration, parental drug/alcohol abuse, parental mental illness, emotional abuse, emotional neglect, physical child abuse, child sexual abuse, and childhood domestic violence. Of these 10 ACEs, childhood domestic violence has the lowest awareness level. It is a term many are not aware of, and/or they do not think of it as a major issue. UNICEF, however, calls growing up in a home with domestic violence “one of the most pervasive human rights challenges of our time.” (CDVA) The ACE study also found that those who experienced CDV almost always experienced another ACE as well, with more than half experiencing at least five other adversities in their childhood home (CDVA). Furthermore, it posited that ACEs negatively affect five key domains of functioning: one’s beliefs about oneself and others, physical health, mental health, behavior, and relationships (DomesticShelters). Through this study, the extensive effects of childhood domestic violence are evident.

upset young woman sits in a chair crying while her boyfriend stands over her yelling aggressively

Effects on Development

It is a common myth that “just witnessing” abuse does not have the negative impact that actually being abused does. In reality, because children’s brains and nervous systems are still developing, any trauma or adversity they face has a greater impact than it would have on an adult. Children who experience CDV are often in a state of constant hypervigilance, with excessive fear and worry, continually experiencing the “fight or flight” response. Brain scans of children experiencing CDV are very similar to those of veterans returning from combat. This exposure on the developing brains of children can change how they develop as the brain attempts to adjust to and compensate for an environment which it perceives as unsafe. (CDVA)

upset young woman sits in a chair crying while her boyfriend stands over her yelling aggressively

What information people notice and let in is controlled by a part of the brain called the cognitive belief system. As David Sousa, author of How the Brain Learns, puts it, “One of our weaknesses as a species is that we start establishing our beliefs as children before we can choose them as an adult. They are often imposed on us by our environment early in childhood. Once we establish that belief system it serves as a filter. Your cognitive belief system, or your self-concept, tends to accept that information, which reinforces your beliefs and filters out information that doesn’t.” Thus, if someone feels guilty, ashamed, or fearful as a child, their brain will continue to find examples to confirm these emotions, and they will likely carry the feelings into adulthood, solidifying them into beliefs and self-perceptions. (DomesticShelters)

Effects on Behavior & Relationships

Because of the effects on brain development that linger into adulthood, patterns of abuse are very difficult to break, and effects of childhood domestic violence can be challenging to mitigate. Though many people who’ve experienced CDV go on to lead fulfilling and productive lives, statistically, they are 74 times more likely to commit a violent crime against another and 3 times more likely to repeat the cycle of abuse (CDVA). Experiencing childhood domestic violence often instills false negative beliefs, which the CDVA calls “LIES”, that victims believe about themselves and the world. Those who experience CDV often feel guilty that they should have stopped the abuse, resentful toward their situation and those who caused it, hopeless because good things don’t happen to people like them, sad, alone, angry, fearful, self-conscious, literally worth less than others, and, ultimately, unloved and unlovable. The developing brain searches for evidence to support these beliefs until they become ingrained and extremely tough to unlearn.

upset young woman sits in a chair crying while her boyfriend stands over her yelling aggressively

These false negative beliefs contribute to an increased risk of behavior and relationship challenges for those who experience CDV. As they get older, many either withdraw from social interaction or become aggressive – bullying and violent. The latter may eventually lead to criminal acts and incarceration. While there are many factors and abuse is always a choice, childhood domestic violence is the single best predictor of domestic violence perpetration in adulthood (CDVA). Similarly, growing up with CDV puts people at higher risk of being the victim of an abusive partner, perhaps related to negative self-belief, that they don’t deserve any better. Children who were exposed to violence in the home are 15 times more likely to be physically and/or sexually assaulted than the national average (AAETS). Those who experienced ACEs, including CDV, are also more likely to engage in personally harmful or high-risk behaviors, such as smoking, eating disorders, substance abuse, and unprotected sex. (DomesticShelters)

upset young woman sits in a chair crying while her boyfriend stands over her yelling aggressively

In less extreme examples, ACEs and false negative beliefs tend to undermine both self-esteem and self-efficacy, which can often lead to challenges accomplishing the things in life that one believes are important, such as finishing school, getting a good job, or achieving financial security. It is also common for those who experienced CDV to be hostile or mistrusting of others out of fear of rejection. This makes it hard for them to maintain trusting relationships. They may also struggle to be good parents, second-guessing themselves even when their judgment is sound. (DomesticShelters)

Effects on Health

Childhood domestic violence can have lasting impacts on victims’ physical and mental health. Growing up with domestic violence is strongly correlated with the top ten leading causes of early death, including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer (CDVA). Those who’ve experienced ACEs, including CDV, tend to have surgery more often, are more likely to have a disability, and experience higher rates of chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, frequent headaches, and fibromyalgia than those who have not (DomesticShelters). Compared with children in other households, children who have been exposed to domestic violence often suffer from insomnia and have trouble with bed-wetting (PsychNet). Those who’ve experienced CDV also frequently struggle with mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (DomesticShelters), which may culminate in self-medicating and self-harming measures such as substance abuse, cutting, and suicide. In fact, they are 6 times more likely to commit suicide and 50 times more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol (CDVA). The number of health issues linked to ACEs and CDV are too numerous to list here.

upset young woman sits in a chair crying while her boyfriend stands over her yelling aggressively

ACE Pyramid

Developed based on the results of the CDC-Kaiser study, the ACE pyramid is an excellent depiction of how all of these factors build upon each other. Meant to show effects of any adverse childhood experience, it holds true when focused solely on childhood domestic violence. The first two levels are environmental and societal dynamics into which a child is born, which may influence or exacerbate ACEs. Then, experiencing ACEs, such as CDV, can disrupt brain development, which can cause social, emotional, and cognitive impairment. This can lead to high-risk behavior, disease, disability, and/or social problems, which may culminate in an early death. While this is not always the case, and not all levels are pertinent to everyone affected by CDV, the ACE pyramid illustrates the serious potential for compounding challenges.

upset young woman sits in a chair crying while her boyfriend stands over her yelling aggressively

Creating Change

Though difficult and requiring deliberate effort, it is possible to change these deep-seated beliefs. The Childhood Domestic Violence Association has worksheets available online to help people reveal the negative beliefs they may have and show positive alternatives to help them move away from destructive behaviors and toward supportive relationships. They suggest that with mentoring from supportive adults, those who experienced CDV can channel their trauma away from negative behaviors and toward resiliency. Clinical psychologist Mark J. Luciano, PhD believes that if a child is able to meet and overcome challenges, the result is often high achievement and ultimate success in later life.

upset young woman sits in a chair crying while her boyfriend stands over her yelling aggressively

Dr. Martin of the CDVA and Kathleen Kendall Thackett, PhD echo this idea by suggesting that even as adults, changes can be made through awareness, understanding, and sharing. They ask, “If you faced adversity in childhood and are here today, what obstacles compare now that you are an adult?”, continuing, “Because of the adversity you faced in childhood, there is no obstacle you can’t overcome. Why? Because you have already overcome FAR greater obstacles in childhood – a time when you were without the powerful resources that you have now as an adult.” Further, they suggest sharing one’s experiences with others can change their meaning. Even writing a note to oneself can be enough of a first step to create momentum toward change. (DomesticShelters)

upset young woman sits in a chair crying while her boyfriend stands over her yelling aggressively

Helping Children Experiencing CDV

There are many things adults looking to support children who are experiencing or have experienced childhood domestic violence can do. “Safety and stability are the first steps toward helping children,” asserts founding director of the Child Witness to Violence Project at Boston Medical Center (CWVP), Betsy McAlister Groves. Creating a calm, stable, comfortable environment can help children feel more safe. “If a young child feels that there’s some predictability in his world, that helps a lot,” Groves explains. Demonstrating healthy behavior, self-care, and management of emotions gives children positive role models to aspire to. Encouraging children to do things they enjoy, build new skills, and develop friendships are good ways to show them their positive qualities and help them gain confidence.

upset young woman sits in a chair crying while her boyfriend stands over her yelling aggressively

Active listening facilitates building connections that are important to reassure children that they can discuss their trauma. For some children, identifying that they are/have been living with CDV can help validate and explain their emotions and reactions. Regular check-ins can be helpful, but letting the child lead in when and what they want to talk about is central to healing. Groves stresses that establishing open communication and being available to listen and answer questions is the best way to help children deal with their experiences.  Letting them know that they are not alone, that what they experienced was not okay, and that it was not their fault can help mitigate feelings of guilt, fear, and worthlessness and build resiliency. Of course, there are community resources, such as CWVP, and therapy options available for extra assistance.

upset young woman sits in a chair crying while her boyfriend stands over her yelling aggressively

Many of the effects and possibilities for change discussed above are also true for victims of direct child abuse. Review part one of this blog series, “Concerning Children: Child Abuse (1 of 2)” for more details about types of child abuse, indicators, impacts, and how to help. The lasting influence of childhood adversity is just as traumatizing and debilitating for victims of child abuse and childhood domestic violence. The more people are aware that any exposure to abuse can have incredibly negative effects on children, the more can be done to help prevent childhood domestic violence and to support those effected toward building resilience and mitigating resulting challenges as adults.

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