Recent evidence clearly shows that living in a family where a parent is being abused has significant traumatic effects on children. Even when they do not observe the violence, children are usually aware that it is occurring.
They are alert to the obvious tension, fear and distress in their parents. Their home, instead of being a place of security, is characterised by cruelty and fear.
The longer the situation goes on the harder it is to undo its damaging effects on children’s development.
There are certain developmental needs of children, which are widely recognised, addressing areas such as language, cognition, sexual identity, physical development, etc.
Four such developmental needs in particular are worth focusing on with regards to domestic violence.
- Safety and Security
Basic physical needs are obviously important to children and can be undermined in situations of domestic violence. Infants exposed to violence may face significant disruptions in basic sleep and feeding schedules. Financial constraints may be placed on the mother in being able to buy basic food, when she has no control or access to money; the need for shelter, particular at the time of separation, and more obviously protection from danger.
In many instances of domestic violence, children are at risk of becoming “unintentional” victims of violence as well as intentional victims of child abuse. There are many stories women tell of holding their children when they are attacked by their partners, or children intervening between their parents in attempts to protect their mother from the abuser.
Children need consistency and predictability in their lives. Often they are unable to rely on their basic needs being met. They also can never be sure what they will be facing in their homes, when there is likely to be an explosion of violence.
We all are aware of the need to set acceptable limits on behaviour for children. It is difficult to achieve this for children when there are no acceptable limits placed on their parent’s behaviour. It also common for children to have excessive limits placed on their behaviour in order to appease their father and attempt to prevent incidents from occurring. This means that children are restricted in their ability to try out new skills and make choices for themselves when their behaviour is being strictly controlled.
This often means that children’s sense of self and self-control is undermined. The trauma in their lives causes great confusion and insecurity that leads to regressive behaviour, such as excessive clinging to adults and a fear of being left alone.
They often are unable to learn to take risks and experience success in a safe and secure setting. Thus children will often express insecurity and find it difficult to separate from their parents without distress.
3. Self Worth
Children not only should be loved, but to feel loved. Often neither parent is fully available to the child. Both the abuser’s verbal and non-verbal messages are derogatory and lack positive messages. Because of the mother’s possible feelings of being overwhelmed, depression, and her own feelings of self worth, she finds it difficult to provide for her children’s emotional needs. In order to achieve a positive self-image a child requires an encouraging and positive environment in which they are valued. This is difficult in a home where domestic violence occurs.
Part of our socialisation of children is helping them to learn how to live cooperatively and make friendships. Rather than learning cooperation and positive communication skills, children learn that violence is an appropriate form of conflict resolution. They also can become very isolated – friendships are either not encouraged, or children are too embarrassed to have friends visits. They are also in a position of having to maintain the family secret at all costs and therefore feel unable to develop relationships with others who may find out this secret.