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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).

FEEL POWERLESS

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.

FEEL FEAR

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 important.”

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.

FEEL ISOLATED

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 BEHAVIOR

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).

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