Imagine a toddler, a boy or a girl, two or three years old, any race, any family. Their unique personality is beginning to emerge. Most are unconditionally loving and in a constant state of discovery. All need nurturing and depend upon their caregivers. They are the very definition of innocent.
The little boy or girl you’re picturing is a blank page, on which his or her experiences and lessons learned will write their future.
The central psychological question in childhood development is a dichotomy: Which is more important, nature or nurture? Does a child’s growth into well-adjusted adulthood depend more upon their natural characteristics, or upon their experiences and how they are raised?
There is one thing we know without a doubt. If that little child you are imagining is beaten, sexually abused, or emotionally victimized, their life will be forever affected by it.
When Children Are Collateral Damage
Extensive studies prove that at least half the men who physically abuse their partners batter their children as well (Pagelow 1989). In cases of severe violence against the mother, the child abuse is worse (Bowker, Arbitell, and McFerron 1988).
The immediate effects on the child are catastrophic, including depression, hopelessness, self-blame, and even physical symptoms. Other children respond by becoming aggressive and violent. Some turn to drugs or crime, many struggle in school. All live in a state of fear and dread.
“He Never Hit Me In the Face.”
“Because it would leave a visible mark.” We’ve heard that despicable evidence of pre-meditation and controlled brutality many times. But, as a society, we’re unsure of how to stop it.
We know that domestic violence can be a generational sin. Children who are victims of, or witnesses to, domestic violence are far more likely to be abusers themselves. Some mothers keep it hidden and tell their children to do the same. Fathers apologize and their self-absorbed words of contrition are accepted.
Violence against family members can become an accepted way of life, a release of vague emotions translated into rage. Some children find themselves on the same path, somehow powerless to control their worst instincts.
It’s Worse Than You Think
Exacting statistics are difficult to ascertain. It is estimated that between half and 2/3rds of all incidents of domestic violence are unreported. The National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse provides the following data from their records:
- 3.3 million children witness domestic violence in their homes each year.
- 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men will experience domestic violence in their lifetime.
- Children exposed to violence are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol; suffer from depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic disorders; fail or have difficulty in school; and become delinquent and engage in criminal behavior.
- Sixty percent of American children are exposed to violence, crime, or abuse in their homes, schools, and communities.
- Almost 40 percent of American children were direct victims of 2 or more violent acts, and 1 in 10 were victims of violence 5 or more times.
Changing the Paradigm
We must accept the fact that the scars are deep in children of domestic violence. They need treatment beyond the realization that “it is wrong”.
That little child you pictured might grow into an angry, aggressive teenager, looking for fulfillment and escape into drugs, crime or violence. He might beat his own wife and children. The young girl might become hopelessly, clinically depressed. Either could find themselves incarcerated.
But that doesn’t have to happen. At Youth Opportunity Foundation, we’ve learned that immersive, professional treatment can stop generational violence.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and other evidence-based treatments, can provide young people with a roadmap to accepting the fact that the abuse they suffered was not their fault. Therapies can give them methods with which to deal with their emotions and control any predisposition toward violence. They can learn to take ownership of their feelings and lives.
Importantly, we must all realize we have the duty to speak up, especially those of us in the position to observe the symptoms of domestic violence: teachers, coaches, neighbors, and friends. If we see the signs, we must act, by encouraging the victims to get help, or by contacting the authorities.
The tendency to brutally assault family members, and the propensity to propagate it across generations can be stopped. We can treat those tendencies, beginning with the honest assessment of the damage domestic violence does to children, and with the realization that if any of us are given a chance to help, we must.
Children are our future; we need to protect these precious souls. They can become assets to society or challenges. We have the power to influence the outcomes.