According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), an estimated 3.2 million children are exposed to domestic violence each year in the United States of America alone.Domestic violence is something that has sprung beyond the boundaries of its "domestic" limits and has emerged as a debilitating social issue. While adults constitute both the giving and receiving end, children―still learning, trying to understand, willing to act upon their curiosity―easily get lost in the midst of the unbearable noise, fury, and physical and verbal aggression, without being able to decipher the intense undercurrents. Can you imagine the plight of a child, who constantly bears witness to everything except love, care, laughter, and security, be it emotionally or physically?
Childhood is supposed to be surrounded by a mother's softly-sung lullaby, a father's steady and protective hands, a household's warmth and loving environment; together nurturing a child in body, mind, and spirit, giving him an environment that is full of joy, laughter, giggles, and playfulness. But when the nurturing environment has elements of anger, violence, screams, fights, and physical/emotional assault, it is natural for the child to replace his or her laughter with undeserved tears.
The state of a child is no different than that of a budding sapling which needs nurturing soil, for it to be able to grow prolifically and bear fruits. A home that fails to provide a safe environment for a young child, will only hamper a child's growth, be it physically, psychologically, socially, emotionally, or mentally. The main approach towards domestic violence is that most of us, be it family members or outsiders, end up focusing on the primary participants―the adults. This lack of attention towards the secondary victims, namely the children and teenagers at home, poses as a potential risk since the effects of living in an enfeebling environment tend to remain unnoticed, until divulged in the most dreadful manner.
Children may not have the understanding of what's happening around them, but they do have the ability to see the violence, feel the tension, hear the screaming, observe the frightful scene and the material damage caused, if any. The effects of living in a violent home are categorized under five main divisions. These are: 1) Emotional; 2) Behavioral; 3) Social; 4) Physical; 5) Long-term. These are discussed in detail below.
Imagine that you are a little child, and your world consists of no one else except your parents. You see your father hit your mother, for hours you hear the screaming, cursing, and yelling. And when you, out of fear and insecurity, cry out loud and run to your mother so that she can hold you tight in her arms and make you feel safe, only end up as the source of her angry venting. How would a child brought up in such an environment, be emotionally sound? Research states that such children tend to have emotional problems, such as, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, insecurity, and other temperament problems. Mentioned below are some associated emotional problems that may be displayed in these children.
- Hesitant to express themselves
- Fearful of abandonment
- Indifferent towards taking an initiative/responsibility
- Having low self-esteem and self-confidence
- Depressed/angry most of the time
- Tendency to be possessive due to insecurity
Your behavior is nothing but a representation of your emotional state, and if a person is emotionally disturbed, it is bound to reflect in their behavior. A child learns how to behave by seeing the people he is surrounded by. If people at home behave rudely, violently, and insensitively towards a child's needs, he grows to believe that this is the right thing to do. If your parents always shout at you for crying, or seeking a hug during turbulent times, you would naturally learn how to be indifferent. The following reveals some behavioral disturbances that are likely to be displayed in children coming from violent households.
- Refusal to go to school or do homework
- Withdrawal from difficult situations
- Intolerant towards threats; usually responded to by physical or verbal aggression
- Indifferent towards threats or warnings; usually responded to by passive behavior
- Nightmares, excessive crying, and bedwetting problems
- Habitual lying to escape trouble/defensive behavior
- Attention seeking; exhibits manipulative or moody tendencies
- Extremely caring like a parent figure
- Dependency on others
Children exposed to domestic violence at a very young age are likely to have social competency problems due to the damage done emotionally, and maybe physically. These children always find it difficult to fit into social circles, possibly due to emotional disturbances such as low self-esteem, lack of self-confidence, insecurities, and the like. Even if a child tries to fit into a social circle, he may resort to unhealthy means such as lying, stealing, manipulation, and so on, in order to make an ideal impression. Listed below are the behavioral damages done to children by domestic violence.
- Preferring to stay isolated rather than mixing with others
- Violent tendencies in relationships
- Excessively involved in social activities to avoid going back home
- Difficulty in solving problems in the social group
- Inability to trust others, especially adults
It is not necessary that the child needs to be a direct victim of physical abuse in order to be physically disturbed by the act. It has been proven that emotional disturbances also cause various physical problems, even in adults. Therefore, children that are more vulnerable to the triggering factors that arise around them―especially in an emotionally or physically unhealthy and unsafe environment―are likely to have the following health problems.
- Headaches and abdominal aches
- Inability to focus/short attention span
- Anxiety attacks/separation anxiety disorder
- Unexplained lethargy/tiredness
- Lack of personal hygiene
- Self-abuse tendencies
- Falling ill constantly/development regression
- Sleeping problems
As discussed earlier, domestic violence has long-term effects on children, which may continue to penetrate into their psyche till they become adults. In fact, it is believed that children affected by domestic violence are more likely to be delinquent adolescents or criminals prior to/through adulthood. Because they have seen violence in their households, they consider it to be a part and parcel of life. A survey involving 6,000 American families found that almost half of the families consisted of men who not only assaulted their wives, but also abused their children. Experts say that boys who have grown up watching their mothers being beaten up by their fathers, are likely to behave in the same way with their partners and children. These adults lose sympathy or respect towards the weaker sex, and consider violence as a medium to resolve conflicting situations.
This is just a small glimpse of how domestic violence not only affects children during their formative years, but also how it can scathe their upbringing, thus turning them into hostile adults. However, on the other hand, it has been noticed that not all children suffer adversely. There are certain factors that minimize the damage done by this social stigma. These include: intellectual ability, female gender, presence of social support, and high socioeconomic status. This just signifies that with the availability of proper care and support by loved ones, including family members and friends, the adverseness may be stabilized, or eliminated before it reaches a detrimental phase.
Although, it is not easy to cope with the act of domestic violence, it is the responsibility of the adult to ensure that the child is taken care of in these difficult circumstances. It is wrong to put yourself, as well as the future of your child, in danger. Always call 911 in case of an abusive family member and save yourself and your child from its adversity.