SOME COMMON CHARACTERISTICS OF CHILDREN IN ABUSIVE HOMES
From understanding Domestic
Violence” by Barbara Corry, MA.
Families under stress produce children under stress. If you
are being abused and have children, they are affected by your abuse. Moreover,
spouse abuse is a form of child abuse. Hurting someone the child loves also
hurts the child. Children in abusive homes may experience the following:
SEE, HEAR VIOLENCE
Children hear frightening noises, threats, and screams.
In addition, they often experience the same abusive behavior used against
the spouse (i.e., the abusive parent may embarrass, hit, or threaten them).
Children of abuse feel a complete sense of
powerlessness. They can not stop the abuse; they cannot “fix” the abusive
relationship; and they can not “save” the parent or siblings who are
abused. Younger children are powerless to leave situations which are (or are
seen as) life-threatening.
Just as a fetus can hear music and respond to familiar voices outside the womb, the fetus
can hear arguing and be jolted or awakened by it. The fetus also experiences the
pregnant mother’s fear and her injuries during the battering. The fetus also may
sustain damage to its brain and developing nervous system as a result of
physical abuse, verbal “punches”, and other repeated assaults on the mother.
Infants and young children are immobile, defenseless, and without language
skills. They may experience a terrifying “storm of angry energy” around them
during abuse. Their first and most lasting impression is that the world is a
frightening place. Issues of personal safety, abandonment, and betrayal result.
These feelings often follow the child into adulthood.
Older children may experience panic, or fear for their lives. They also fear
what will happen to them if mother is hurt or if father goes to jail. Children
also become caretakers, comforting the abused parent and/or siblings. In
addition, children may become “crutches” for the abused parent; e.g., the parent
may turn to the child for companionship instead of resolving the troubled
marital relationship. This is not a child’s role.
EXPERIENCE EMOTIONAL ABANDONMENT
Fighting parents cannot attend to the
child’s emotional needs. Often, the ups and downs of
abusive homes are ignored: the child feels anxiety and agitation as the tension builds up; the child feels fear and helplessness
during the battering; and then the child feels guilt and shame afterward.
Without intervention, these feelings are never resolved.
DEVELOP LOW SELF-ESTEEM
Children of abuse do not develop
healthy self-esteem. They often blame themselves for the arguments and
the violence. They may also believe that it is their
own failing that they receive little love. Violence also creates low self-worth: For example, if a
parent does not realize what happens to the child who witnesses or receives the
abuse, the child may believe that, “My feeling (of fear or pain) are ignored,
and my needs (for peace and comforting) are not being met…I must not be
DEVELOP BEHAVIORAL PROBLEMS
Children of abuse learn to abuse
themselves and others. They are at risk for alcohol and drug abuse.
They may also develop eating and sleeping disorders and
behavioral problems other then symptoms of traumatic stress. Moreover, many boys learn
to abuse and girls learn to accept and expect abuse. Moreover, children of abuse
do not have good role models for resolving conflict, communicating their
feelings, or for building close relationships.
DEVELOP PROBLEMS WITH ANGER
Many boys learn how to “lash
out” or “go off” on others. They may take out their frustration with in school
by bullying others. They may become aggressive, rebellious, turn to crime, or
act out sexually. Girls may become very angry with their mothers for not
protecting them. They also learn to turn their anger inward or may become
abusive themselves. Also, children may feel anger toward the abusive parent and
then blame themselves for hating the batterer.
Violence represents betrayal. It interferes
with the child’s ability to get close to his or her parents. In addition,
because trust in the parents has been violated, a child of abuse is frequently
unable to trust others. Closeness equals emotional or physical devastation, and
the child’s deepest fear is that others will beat them, torture them, abandon
them, or emotionally destroy them - the way their parent(s) did. This feeling of
isolation can create profound loneliness and an unwillingness to risk sharing
themselves with others.
TAKE ON ADULT ROLES PREMATURELY
Girls may become
“super-responsible”, taking on tasks which parents neglect. The child may spend
a lot of energy trying to make peace. He or she may separate the fighting
parents, call the police, or try to “save” the abused parent or abused siblings.
These are not a child’s “job”.
EXPERIENCE DEPRESSION AND FLASHBACKS
Children of abuse
often experience low-grade, long-term depression. Abused children also
experience flashbacks of the violent episodes they have witnessed. They may also
“block out’ violent scenes for years.
CHILDREN WHO ARE EXPOSED TO SEVERE VERBAL AND PHYSICAL
ABUSE LEARN HOW TO HARM THEMSELVES
Instead of self-love, children of violence learn
self-abuse. Children who experience or witness abuse may adopt self-mutilating
behaviors such as pulling their eyebrow hairs out, doing things to keep wounds
from healing, self-induced vomiting or self-starvation. Unable to externalize
the rageful or vengeful child within, the child may turn the rage inward and
harm himself/herself. Some who witness torture or who have been tortured
blame themselves and reenact what was done to them. Others harm themselves so they have a real
hurt to talk about, when the emotional pain is too difficult to discuss.
CHILDREN WHO ARE EXPOSED TO EXTREME BEHAVIOR LEARN EXTREME
A violent home is a nursery school for abuse. Children who
see a parent rage “out of control” do not learn positive ways to express their
emotions. Moreover, children who witness substance abuse do not learn moderation
and self-control; rather, they learn by example how to be irresponsible with
substances such as food, money, alcohol, or drugs. In addition, the child who
grows up in a home where things are thrown at someone or belongings are broken
up comes to regard this behavior as perfectly “normal”. He or she is taught
specific techniques to humiliate and intimidate others.
Finally, instead of learning kindness and consideration,
many children who are continually put down or who witness constant criticism,
learn how to devastate others with words. For other children, this parental
criticism becomes self-criticism and self-hatred.
CHILDREN OF VIOLENCE LEARN TO BE ALONE
Instead of learning how to be with others comfortably and
learning how to get support and nurturing from others, a child in a violent home
learns how to be alone. He or she also may not learn how to ask for help or
depend on others. Children of abuse frequently turn within themselves (Gelles
and Strauss, Intimate Violence). Girls may see (and fear) men as potential
batterers. Although these are “safe” choices for the child and may help him or
her to survive, they create a very lonely existence for the child.
CHILDREN OF VIOLENCE DO NOT LEARN BOUNDARIES
Children of abuse grow up watching other people’s
boundaries being violated. They then have difficulty understanding and
respecting physical and verbal boundaries. Some do not learn that hitting
someone or verbally “taking swipes” at someone’s heart are wrong (i.e. they
learn to abuse). Others do not learn that having their own physical and verbal
boundaries violated by others is wrong (i.e., they learn to accept abuse).