October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. While most people understand what domestic violence is in a general sense, they may not be familiar with just how complex — and damaging — it can be. This includes the effect that it can have on individuals who are not physically abused themselves, but who witness the abuse.
Many children who are exposed to violence in the home may also be victims of physical abuse. However, even if they are not physically harmed, simply being exposed to domestic violence can have both short-term and long-term effects on kids’ physical and mental health.
In the short-term, children who live in a home where a parent is being abused may begin to feel fearful and anxious. They often become hyper-vigilant, on guard for the next incidence of violence. Depending on their age, this may cause them to react in different ways, such as:
Preschool-aged children may revert to behaviors that they used to do when they were younger, such as bedwetting, crying, whining and thumb sucking. They may also have trouble sleeping, and show signs of separation anxiety.
School-aged children may blame themselves for the abuse, which can hurt their self-esteem. They may experience headaches and stomachaches, and withdraw from school, friends, and activities.
Teenagers who witness abuse often act out in negative ways, such as skipping school, having unprotected sex, and using alcohol and/or drugs. They may also have low self-esteem, become withdrawn, and experience depression.
Over time, witnessing domestic violence puts children at greater risk of repeating the cycle as adults. This may involve entering into abusive relationships when they are older, or becoming abusers themselves. According to a 2005 study, a boy who sees him mother being abused is 10 times more likely to abuse a female partner as an adult. Girls who witness their mothers being abused are 6 times more likely to be sexually abused, compared to girls who grow up in non-abusive homes.
Children who either witness or experience domestic violence have a higher risk of a number of health problems as adults. This may include diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, as well as mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.
Fortunately, there is a way to help kids who have witnessed or experienced domestic violence. While each person responds differently to traumatic experiences, there are a number of ways to encourage their recovery. The sooner that they get help, the more likely it is that they will have a healthy future. This can take many forms, such as:
Getting them professional help from a trauma-informed counselor. Blackburn Center offers a range of services to women, children, and men who have experienced violence or abuse. All of our services for victims are confidential, and offered free of charge.
Helping your child build a support system, including trusted adults.
Talking to your child about boundaries and healthy relationships.
Having a conversation about their fears, and reassuring them that what happened wasn’t their fault — or your fault.
Helping your child to feel safe, which may include leaving the abusive relationship. A trained crisis counselor can help you develop a safety plan for yourself and your children.
At Blackburn Center, we offer help, healing, and hope to anyone whose life has been affected by violence — including children. If you are in crisis or simply need to talk, we are here for you. Call us anytime at 1-888-832-2272 to get help.