Whenever there is violence in the family, it’s impossible for a child to feel safe and secure. Violence within the home takes away what is normally a child’s safe haven. Even if that violence only happens once a month (or possibly even less), it’s the threat of violence that keeps everyone on their toes. Imagine that once every month, you knew that the state would send some big brute of a police officer into your home to beat and rape you. The odds of today being a perfectly normal day are still overwhelmingly in your favor, but how heavy would the shadow be lingering over your thoughts?
Children in violent homes live with a similar shadow. They spend a lot of their mental energy wondering and worrying about when the next axe will drop. Especially when it comes to domestic violence, both the perpetrator(s) and the threat of violence are always there. It’s like living with a stick of dynamite in your living room and not knowing when the timer has it set to explode.
When violence does occur, it also takes a while to come down off of it and feel halfway normal again. Therefore exposure to violence causes elevated stress and anxiety, not just while it’s happening, but for a long time afterwards as well.
How domestic violence diminishes a child’s trust in caregivers
“It’s a terrible thing when violence walks into your home. My father beat me once, just once. I was a teenager and he was losing control of me. He dragged me out of bed into the kitchen and hit me until I went limp. Strangely, it didn’t hurt. Afterward, nothing was broken. But most cases of domestic violence aren’t about doing any damage. They are about gaining control. My father’s rage filled the whole room. It was a creature all of its own. Once it happens, you stop feeling safe. I loved my father, but I no longer trusted him.”
– Primatologist Vanessa Woods (2010, p. 184)
Children who see another parent victimized start to lose faith that this parent can protect them from harm. After all, they can’t even protect themselves. And as the testimony above alludes to, sometimes even one incident of violence is enough to shake a child’s trust in a violent parent. The end result of this is that children lose trust in the ability and/or willingness of adults to keep them safe.
How a decreased sense of security impacts a child’s development
Both of these things make it more difficult for children to function normally. It’s hard to play, explore, test your limits, or do homework when feeling anxious or threatened. Some experts even believe that most of the academic impairments seen among children in poverty can be traced to things like increased instability or violence in the home.
This is one of the most overlooked aspects of family violence. Children need to be able to test limits, make mistakes, stick their head out on occasion, and push for independence in order to develop normally. They can’t do that if the threat of violence is always hanging over their head.
This constant walking-on-eggshells feeling stunts their growth in many ways.
Think of it like a gymnast who was only allowed to practice in a studio covered in knives and pointy nails, rather than the foam mats typically installed. Whereas a gymnast in a padded room could try new and adventurous things to develop her skill, secure in the knowledge that the mats would buffer her fall and keep her relatively safe and protected from injury, the gymnast in the knife-laden room would be afraid to do much of anything at all, fearing that one slip-up could spell disaster. If you visit these two gymnasts years later, one would have advanced quite a bit and developed many new skills, whereas the other would have barely made any strides at all.
A threatening environment is to a child what a knife-laden room is to a gymnast. It makes children overly cautious and fearful of anything that might involve risk. Therefore it impedes the type of boundary-pushing activities that most lead to growth.
The diminished parenting that comes with domestic violence Battered women are under severe emotional and psychological stress, which can affect their ability to parent, making them less responsive and more emotionally distant from their children. (Augustyn et al., 1995; Zuckerman et al., 1995) For example, it’s been noted that nearly half of domestic violence victims suffer from depression, 64% are afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder, and 18% are suicidal. (Bressler, 2014; this also speaks to the severity of the impact on children, since kids absorb their environment and will exhibit similar responses to any violence they witness.) Since parental pathology is one of the strongest predictors of child wellbeing, this brings yet another risk factor into the equation.
Some victims will turn to drugs or alcohol as a result, which only worsens the situation. In many cases, this leaves children with one parent who is violent and abusive and another who is mentally ill and quite possibly medicating their pain by drifting away into addiction.