The Unintended Victims: How Children are Affected by Abusive Relationships

Youth-covering-eyesAll too frequently we hear the news stories detailing domestic violence incidents that have gone from bad to worse. Often these stories surround the loss of life or hospitalization of a victim at the hands of their abuser. While most reports focus on the actions of the abuser or the victim involved, it is imperative to remember that in many cases there are children present during these assaults.

The children who have witnessed or experienced the devastation of domestic violence first hand are often an afterthought when discussing the overall scope of abuse. A common misconception is that if the abuse is not inflicted upon the children directly, the impact is negligible.

However, psychoanalysts are paying attention and analyzing the effects children suffer when witnessing this toxic behavior. According to Jeffrey L. Edleson (2011), the problems that occur in children can be, “grouped into three main categories… (1) behavioral and emotional; (2) cognitive functioning and attitudes; and (3) longer-term.”

As Edleson illustrates in his research the negative impact on children can be detrimental in nearly every aspect of their lives, sometimes lasting well into adulthood. Even more distressing is that the behavior witnessed is recirculated and then becomes cyclical in that family. As one abuser graduates to old age and death their offspring, having witnessed the behavior while young, now takes their place.

Some of the key behaviors exhibited by children of abusers are aggressiveness and antisocial tendencies. These internalized behaviors can make it hard for children to relate to their peers or engage in social situations. This leads to anxiety, depression, issues with self-esteem, anger, and bad temperament and is in direct contradiction to children in non-abusive homes.

These behaviors are symptomatic and mirror the behavior of an abuser in many cases, which only adds to the child’s inability to effectively handle conflict resolution in the future. Not only do these children grow up having difficulty relating to others but males more than females grow to see violence as an acceptable option.

According to a study by UNICEF in 2006, “The single best predictor of children becoming either perpetrators or victims of domestic violence later in life is whether or not they grow up in a home where there is domestic violence.”

So, what does all this mean?

It means that as advocates of violence prevention, we have a duty to be hyper-vigilant when it comes to preventing these children from continuing the cycle of violence. How? Through education. Start small. When they steal a sibling’s toy or hit a playmate in frustration, capitalize on that moment to teach them that our hands are not for hitting. Encourage them to express how they felt when “x” happened to them. Then, validate their feelings. But explain how it is NEVER okay to use violence when we feel “angry/hurt/scared.” The earlier they learn to understand their emotions, the better equipped they will be to respond to them in a healthy and non-violent way.

It does NOT mean that we give up on them. It does NOT mean that we allow them to become a statistic. While it is true that children growing up in violence are more likely to perpetuate violence, it does not need to be the accepted truth.

Children who have witnessed violence can rise above their circumstances and break the cycle of abuse. They just need us to help them. #PreventionMatters

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