Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Domestic Violence and its Effects on Children

By Alexandria Farrell, Department of Social Services, Office of Child Abuse Prevention

CalVCB logo and text: Domestic Violence Awareness Month, October 2018.
Imagine being a child, sitting in your room playing, quiet and carefree. Then out of nowhere, the happy space you have created is drowned out by an unpleasant and familiar sound. Mom and dad are fighting again. Do you run out of your room and try to intervene or do you stay, trying to escape the noise in the safe space of your room. As the fights go on, becoming more frequent, louder, and scarier, your safe space continues to get smaller and smaller until eventually it doesn’t exist anymore. This may seem like a bad dream to you, but for some children, this is reality. More than five million children witness domestic violence in the United States each year. These children are three times more likely to repeat this cycle as adults.

Now, what constitutes domestic violence? The United States Department of Justice defines domestic violence as a pattern of behavior that one person in a relationship uses to control the other. The pattern of behavior can be expressed in a variety of ways, such as via verbal, emotional, physical, financial and/or sexual abuse. When a child is exposed to domestic violence it means that the child has heard or seen one or both parents or guardians engage in violent behaviors or has seen the effects of violent behaviors. This can include witnessing or hearing the violence firsthand, hearing about it when it is discussed after the fact or seeing marks or bruises on a parent or guardian.

We always hear that children’s minds are like sponges, absorbing everything they see and hear. Depending on the child’s environment, this can be good or bad. Childhood experiences can have long-term effects that follow the individual well into adulthood. The bad experiences are often referred to as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and are linked to a variety of social, emotional and health problems. Domestic violence is considered an ACE.

Children account for 33% of domestic violence victims seeking CalVCB assistance.When children are repeatedly exposed to violence, it causes toxic stress. This toxic stress triggers the brain to constantly be on edge; waiting for the next threat. This often results in a variety of complications. Health problems such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder have all been linked to early exposure to domestic violence. The social and emotional damage resulting from toxic stress can affect relationships throughout the child’s lifetime. Children in this situation may lose the ability to feel empathy for others, show signs of increased fear or anger in negative or confusing situations, or show signs of violence when in situations where they feel uncomfortable or threatened. They may also begin to show behavioral changes such as clinging, difficulty sleeping, tantrums and disobeying rules. These are common ways that children experiencing stress attempt to cope and gain control over their situations. It is also common for children from homes of domestic violence to have a hard time making new friends because they can feel uncomfortable in many social settings and are unsure of behaviors that are socially acceptable. Behavioral issues can also affect school performance, which can later affect learning potential in adulthood.1 If a child is acting out at school or engaging in risky behaviors outside of school then it is more likely to have an effect on school performance. Kids with lower grades are less likely to graduate or go to college and won’t have many options for high paying jobs.

So how do we heal trauma and build resilience to end the cycle of domestic violence?

Many organizations are working to prevent ACEs, address trauma, and build resilience in families. The Office of Child Abuse Prevention, in partnership with the California Department of Public Health, is working to address common ACEs that can lead to long-term complications through the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Essentials for Childhood Initiative. Another important partner is ACEs Connection, a network that promotes public awareness, recognition, study and impact of adverse childhood experiences. The Essentials for Childhood Initiative promotes lifelong health and well-being and strives to create safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments for all children.

Additionally, family service providers are turning to new ways of treatment. Trauma Informed Care is a framework for treatment that involves understanding, recognizing and responding to the effects of all types of trauma. By utilizing this type of treatment, survivors are able to rebuild a sense of control and empowerment. This model of care emphasizes the questions of “what happened to you” rather than “what is wrong with you.” It takes the blame off of the victim and allows them to understand that their experiences are not their fault but that they are able to make choices to overcome them to improve their emotional and physical health and well-being.

Thankfully, risk factors which might cause a child to experience toxic stress can be offset by creating healthy environments for them to recover from previous traumatic experiences. This means creating an environment that promotes safety, stability and nurturing. A safe environment is one where the child does not have fear of physical or emotional harm. A stable environment is one that provides consistency and predictability for the child. This can mean having a set schedule and knowing who is in the home with the family. A nurturing environment provides children with caregivers that are sensitive to the needs of the child and others in the household, whether the needs be physical or emotional. A positive home environment can have a big impact on overall health and wellness, which leads to better outcomes in a child’s future.

1 Diamond, T., & Muller, R. T. (2004). The relationship between witnessing parental conflict during childhood and later psychological adjustment among university students: Disentangling confounding risk factors. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science—Revue Canadienne Des Sciences Du Comportement, 36(4), 295–309.