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Children Who Live With Violence

Domestic violence may be kept from relatives, neighbors, clergy, or others, but children living with violence know what is happening.

In Ann Jones and Susan Schechter's 1993 book, When Love Goes Wrong: What to Do When You Can't Do Anything Right, one woman tells her story:

Glen never started in on me until after I put Elaine to bed. I thought she never knew. Then one morning -- she must have been six or seven -- she looked up at me from the breakfast table and asked, "Did Daddy kill you this time?" I stood right there and watched my own denial system crumble. I always thought, "He's good to her. She needs him. I'm staying for her." But it was a lot more complicated and terrifying for her than I had seen. (pg. 248)

A home that is characterized by physical, emotional, sexual, or property abuse is a frightening, debilitating and unhealthy place. Children who live in such a home are often not able to be children. Psychologist Ruth Olsen says all children are affected. The signs may be different based on how children interpret the experience of witnessing the violence.

Some factors that may determine how children will be affected are: how they have learned to cope and survive with the stress of living in a violent home; to what extent they have supports and to what extent they use supports, like friends, relatives or other adults. Each of these factors influences how deeply the violence will affect children. As you read this list you may confront some feelings of guilt. Just remember that you can do something beneficial for your children and their future.

Children may have some or all of these feelings:

  • Guilt - feeling responsible for the violence.
  • Shame - something's wrong with my family.
  • Fear - of expressing feelings, of divorce or separation, of the unknown, of injury.
  • Anger - about the violence or the chaos in their life.
  • Depressed/Helpless/Powerless - unable to change things.
  • Burdened - may feel like a substitute parent or caretaker of family.

Children may express these feelings by behaving in some or all of these ways:

  • May act out against others or they may withdraw from others.
  • May become overachievers, acting like small adults.
  • May have difficulty paying attention and concentrating.
  • May become caretakers, worrying about the needs of others more than themselves.
  • May be too aggressive or too passive.
  • May be rigid, sarcastic, blaming or defensive.
  • May have sleeplessness, fears of going to sleep, nightmares, dreams of danger.
  • May experience bed-wetting, eating problems, or medical problems like asthma or ulcers.
  • May be without friends, or friendships may start intensely then end abruptly.
  • May be uncomfortable bringing friends home to play.
  • May have difficulty trusting others (likely due to abuser's false promises to change).
  • May be excessively social in an attempt to stay away from home.
  • May be passive with others or may seek power as a bully or aggressor
  • May blame others for their behavior.
  • May believe it's okay to hit others you care about in order to get what you want, express anger, feel powerful, or get your needs met.
  • May have a low self-concept or self-esteem.
  • May not ask for what they need.
  • May think that feeling angry is bad because people get hurt.
  • May define the roles of man/woman/parent according to what they see in their own family.

Although it may be difficult to talk to your children about it, tell them the truth about the abuse. Allow your children to talk freely about their feelings. Answer their questions honestly but in a way that is appropriate for their ages. Let your children know that the abuser's behavior is not acceptable, but it is okay to love or miss the abuser, too. Acknowledge the loss they may be feeling. Do not discuss with others the specifics of the situation or your feelings about your partner in front of your children - have adult discussions with adults. It is ok to cry in front of your children. This lets them know that their feelings are normal, and it gives them permission to express their own feelings.

There are things that you can do to protect your children. Talk about when the violence is most likely to occur. Depending on your situation, you may have to tell your children there is a possibility that the abusive person may not be a part of their lives any longer. You may have to say, "If this person can't get help and learn a new way to behave, we may have to live without this person because that's the only way to keep ourselves safe."

Set boundaries with your children. They need to know that they are not the cause of the violence, and they cannot control or stop what is happening. Tell them what they can do to safely help you. Be prepared with a plan. Here are some suggestions that you may use to plan with your children:

  • Teach your children their area code, phone number, and address.
  • Prepare yourself and your children for the possibility of leaving to find a safe place if you are in danger.
  • Find a neighbor that the children can run to; if no neighbor is available, children can plan to sit in the car with doors locked and windows up during violent episodes.
  • Teach your children to call 911 or 0; tell them to call 911 or 0 once they have reached safety (either a safe room in the house or a safe place outside of the house).
  • If your child is a teen and can drive, keep an extra set of keys so he or she can drive to safety and get help.

An example of a child's escape plan for you to use with your children follows this piece. It can help you talk about the abuse with your children and make a plan with them. If you have teens in the house, you may need a different approach to protect them. Teens are old enough to start fighting back, and this puts them at a greater risk. No matter how independent they seem, they need your help to sort it all out. Talk with your teen, keep the lines of communication open.

Here are some external website resources that may be helpful to you as you discuss your situation with your children and plan for their safety:

You can also check your local library or bookstore for the above books