Updated: Oct 8
Children don’t witness Domestic Abuse, they experience it; they live it; it becomes part of their belief system... They learn it. No matter how old or how young they were or how well you think it was hidden from them, they know.... and they deserve the chance to recover and heal too.
Domestic Abuse IS child abuse. There’re no ifs, buts or maybes about it, and the argument that they never saw or heard it is disingenuous and insulting to the trauma they’ve suffered.
What is Domestic abuse?
Domestic abuse, or domestic violence, is defined across UK Government as any incident of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been intimate partners or family members, regardless of their gender or sexuality. (www.cps.gov.uk)
Recent amendments made to the Domestic Abuse Bill will ensure a statutory definition is agreed. The current definition will likely change to incorporate reference to children as victims and to make the language more inclusive for all victims.
How does Domestic Abuse affect us and our children?
All of us, every single one of us, are what we are because of where we came from. Our past experiences and our beliefs form us into the adults we become. As soon as we introduce that thought as a starting point for all DA work, we begin to immediately see that the children can’t not have been affected.
There is a real belief that children “witness” abuse between their adults. They don’t witness it, they don’t “experience” it, they live it; it IS their life, it becomes the framework for their entire life story and the blueprint for their own future relationships… Their ‘normal’.
Living with trauma – and there’s no question that living with any sort of abuse is traumatic – doesn’t produce resilient children, it produces children who’ve learnt to live with abuse. Survivalists.
Children who have learnt to tolerate the intolerable, and for whom abuse and the survival thereof is an inescapable and ‘normal’ part of daily life, see the world very differently from children who’ve been raised with love, tolerance and compassion. THOSE children will grow natural resilience, not the abused ones; they’ll grow defence mechanisms and cynical mistrust. Children who are abused, don’t learn to hate their abusers, they love them and often, they’re desperate to be loved back. They learn to hate themselves for not being lovable enough.
Children process stuff very differently to adults. I often tell parents who are struggling with their child’s behaviour that parenting is a lot like the fairground game Whack-A-Mole; you deal with one thing and another pops up, seemingly from nowhere.
This is because children will safeguard themselves emotionally until they feel safe physically. In other words, they won’t start to process the bad stuff until they feel sure that the ‘consequences’ of doing so won’t bring unreasonable repercussions – we must remember that everything an abuser does is unreasonable so the children learn that ALL adult responses will be unreasonable, and it takes a while for them to learn and trust that this can be different.
Only when they feel safe will they work through (act out) whatever is bothering them. This sounds very nice and considerate on the part of the child but actually, it’s just because children are ego-centric beings – their whole world revolves around themselves and their people. If none of their trusted people are available – physically or emotionally – they’ll wait. Only when the person they trust appears to have space – and often, this is at the point where a survivor has moved on sufficiently to be getting ‘back to normal’ and things seem to be ‘finally’ improving and settling down – will they start to act out.
Parents say things to me like, “Things are better now than they’ve ever been so I don’t understand why Little Johnny is playing up now!”, or, “Little Phoebe knows what it was like to live with the abuse so why would she do it to me too?”
For the record, Little Phoebe and Little Johnny aren’t doing anything TO their parent – the inevitable victim/survivor mentality in the adult means it feels personal, but the reality is the children are just working through their stuff – ALL behaviour is effect not cause and it’s ALL communication of some sort.
Little Johnny and Little Phoebe aren’t targeting their parent for further abuse, they’re communicating with their parent in the only way they know how – they’ve learnt that ‘bad’ behaviour gets far more attention and concentration than good behaviour – after all, the abuser always got what they wanted by being ‘badly’ behaved so it’s a proven successful strategy…
I always ask about DA when I meet with a parent who’s struggling with their child’s behaviour, and they’re always surprised when I tell them that it doesn’t matter how long ago, or whether it’s not like that now; unless the child has had the opportunity to work through and process their own responses to the abuse, they’ve not had the opportunity to work through and process their own responses to the abuse! Even if they have had the opportunity to work through and process their responses, it’s likely that this opportunity was offered at the point where the adult was accessing help too and not again since.
Our understanding of the world can only be appropriate to our age and experience; a four-year-old’s experience of the world is also four-years-old so their understanding of anything can only be relative to their age. It follows then, that some of the things we experienced when we were four might need to be re-visited as our understanding of the broader topic grows.This is never more true than for the children who’ve lived with Domestic Abuse.
How do we put it right?
Traumatised children who haven’t had the opportunity to work through their responses to a tough situation will grow into traumatised and misunderstood adolescents – young adults who will become labelled with all sorts of inappropriate things, from ASD and ODD to defiant and aggressive, because if the abuse is historical and known, it’s assumed that they should’ve been ‘fixed’ by the six sessions of play-therapy they had when they were four.
If the abuse is current and unknown, it’s unlikely to be discovered because it’s very rare that these questions are asked - and even if they are, it’s unlikely that the adolescent will recognise their ‘normal’ to be abusive, and even if they do, they’re unlikely to admit it, so the question in isolation becomes moot.
If the abuse / trauma remains unaddressed, those same traumatised adolescents will grow into traumatised adults, and those traumatised adults will probably access the mental health system and go on to become the traumatised parents of vicariously or generationally traumatised children. The trauma doesn’t go away just because you’re old enough to understand it properly; understanding brings with it questions, not answers, and if you’ve been conditioned to believe that your trauma is ‘normal’ there’s nothing to recover from, is there…?
There’s not much in this world that’s an absolute certainty, but one thing that IS an absolute certainty is that being the victim of Domestic Abuse as a child won’t be considered as the root of one’s mental health struggles as an adult. It’s just not a thing weirdly….
One MAY get the opportunity to discuss one’s childhood if one is referred to a psychodynamic psychoanalytic Psychotherapist (in very simple terms, their thing is ‘all roads lead back to your relationship with your mother’) but even then, if your mother was the ‘protective’ one, it’s unlikely that the conversation will go much further than that.
Also, there’s a trend currently, for therapy to be short-term and solution-focussed (because it’s cheaper) so its premise is ‘learn to live well’ and it’s generally focussed on resolving a particular issue in the here and now – overcoming anxiety, for example – without ever looking at the cause of the anxiety. In other words, it wants you to learn to live with ‘it’ rather than learning from ’it’ to live well.
Trauma is for life, not just for Christmas and no matter what or when the trauma, the impact WILL last a lifetime. We can understand this easily if we think about a traumatic physical injury – the person who breaks their leg is likely to have a lifelong impediment as a consequence – a slight limp, arthritis in the joint… but when we think about non-physical trauma, our understanding is less linear; we genuinely believe that if we ignore bad stuff, it’ll just…. Go away!
Trauma changes us – it insists we create a ‘New Normal’ for ourselves. Accepting that we need to move forward differently rather than go back to how something was before, is key to learning to live with our new normal. Recovering from Domestic Abuse requires a lot of support for all who lived with it. As adults, we have choice – we can choose to leave the relationship (we understand completely that this is NEVER as simple as it sounds) or we can choose to stay, but our children don’t have choice – they have to live with our choices.
The outcome of this is that we, the adults, have something to work towards getting back to – we can remember what life was like before the abuse and so have something to work towards achieving. If our children were born into abuse, they don’t have that privilege – they ONLY know abuse, so it becomes our job to give them something better and different to look forward to.
This is often where the problem lies – the adults don’t want to talk or think about the ‘bad times’ but they fail to remember that the child only has ‘bad times’ to think about, so everybody clashes. We might start to hear things like, “You’re just like [the abuser]!” from parents and, for obvious reasons, this doesn’t go down well with the adolescent!
Time, love and effort are the things that will counteract trauma. Creating a new normal together is a great foundation for this! Take time to remember that the children don’t know any different and before they can learn that there is a better way, they must first UN-learn their existing ‘normal’. Love them when they’re at their least lovable because that’s when they need it most; and make the effort to help them understand and learn that there’s a different and better way to relate to others.
Don’t minimise their past – just because you don’t want to talk / think about the abuse, doesn’t mean they don’t NEED to talk / think about the abuse.
Don’t expect that they’ll just ‘Know Better’. They won’t. It takes active and consistent input to change their beliefs around what’s ‘normal’.
Try to remember that if the abuser was also their parent / step-parent / a significant figure in their life, the relationship between them, and their feelings about them, will be EXTREMELY complicated! They need to feel safe enough to work through all of that – the good, the bad AND the ugly – without fear of repercussion or judgement.
If you EVER hear yourself saying, “It didn’t affect them, they never knew…” give your head a massive wobble. It did, they did, the end.
Remember that all losses must be grieved. When we’re talking about abusive relationships, this can feel pretty peculiar – why would we grieve the loss of something so awful?! But you must grieve; grieve the loss of yourself to the abuse, grieve the loss of their childhoods to the abuse, grieve the loss of the good times (and there will have been some) and the loss of the fairy-tale you thought you were going to get. Allow the children time and space to grieve too – their emotional chaos is probably actually them working through the grieving process. Being compassionate to their pain instead of cross about their behaviour will make a huge difference to them.
If you and/or your children have experienced Domestic Abuse and you would like some help, support or advice please get in touch with us. We have a fantastic Peer 2 Peer Support service for survivors of Domestic Abuse where you can talk things through and gain practical support from someone who's been there; in addition we provide therapeutic support for children and access to a range of further support services: https://bit.ly/2SLKUU9
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