Know Your Rights - Effects of Domestic Violence on Children
Sanjeev* is the eldest son of six in his family. He was only two years old when he started to witness his father abusing his mother. Sanjeev's mother told him that she was beaten even before he was born. Once, his father tried to hit his mother with a chair and threatened her with a knife. Sanjeev saw all these through a keyhole with the presence of his brothers and sisters.
The problem at home affected his schoolwork; he could not concentrate on his homework. He often felt scared and was always on the lookout for his father, fearing that he would hurt him like he did to his mother.
Sanjeev said, "I wish I could run away with my brothers and sisters, but I loved my mother and sometimes I loved my father". His heart was terribly torn after witnessing the abuse.
His father had beaten him up for mingling with boys from other schools. He slapped Sanjeev and threatened him with a belt. His father occasionally asked him for money. Sanjeev knew pretty well that his father would buy cheap liquor with his hard saved pocket money.
When Sanjeev was asked about how he felt towards his father, he said, "Feel like kicking him!!" "One cent also won't give him!" and "He's no more in my family".
He pleaded to his mother to run away from his abusive father. Eventually, he followed his mother to WAO. While at the Refuge, curious as to what his father was doing, every now and then, he would call up his school friends to find out about his father. According to his friends, his father had told his schoolmates that Sanjeev was involved in an accident and had died.
Sanjeev felt that his friends were very lucky because their fathers did not treat them the way his father did. He couldn't concentrate on his studies and often have flashbacks about the abuse. Sanjeev also had constant nightmares about his father. He could never sleep well.
He dreams to be a policeman when he grows up, so that he can put a stop to men who beat up their wives and children. Sanjeev feels strongly that no one should have to go through what he and his family did.
Domestic violence affects children in many ways. Some children, like Sanjeev, are directly abused by the perpetrators. Some are helpless witnesses of the violence that happens in their homes. Mothers often feel trapped in an abusive relationship and tell themselves that they will leave once the children are grown up. This is especially if the family depends solely on the father for economical support. However, the children grow up being affected by the violence too, and sometimes these scars may have a long-term impact on their lives.
The witnessing of domestic violence by children can be seen as psychological abuse of the child. This is because it is an action by the adult that affects the child's development of self and social competence. It also terrorises the child when s/he is verbally or physically abused, and creates a climate of fear that the child has to live in. Domestic violence further emotionally and sometimes physically maltreats the child by causing him or her to live in a dangerous and unstable environment of violence. The abusive behaviour in addition, exposes the child to limited, self-destructive, violent and negative role models. All these factors contribute to an unhealthy environment for the development of a child in a domestic violence situation.
What are the effects of domestic violence on children?
- Children from violent families may be subjected to abuse or neglect. A study has shown that an estimated 30% - 40% of children of women who are abused are abused themselves. Child witnesses of violence who were also physically or sexually abused have been seen to exhibit more behavorial problems than non-abused child witnesses.
- Children who witness abuse are more likely to become depressed or feel powerless.
- They may feel guilty for the abuse or embarrassed by its effects.
- They may fear abandonment or fear to express their emotions.
- Children may experience difficulty in trusting.
- They may show aggression towards their mothers.
- Many children who witness abuse at home either become withdrawn or aggressive. They may be passive, or may exhibit bullying tendencies towards other children.
Some of the things you can do to help a child heal from the effects of domestic violence:
- If you have left an abusive relationship, and fear that the perpetrator will continue to harass you and your children, you can apply for an Interim Protection Order or Protection Order from the Magistrates Court. Make sure that you request for your children to be named in the Order too. Contact to the nearest Welfare Office and they will be able to assist you in this matter.
- Help the child define the abuse and let him or her know that abuse is not okay. This will help the child speak about the abuse and share his or her experience, as well as assign responsibility for the abusive behaviour. With that, it will help the child assuage any feelings of guilt, confusion or embarrassment.
- Let the child know that it is okay to open up and speak about his or her feelings. Reaffirm that whatever they may be feeling in relation to the abuse is valid.
- Share with the child that s/he is not alone in his or her experiences. Let her know that there are other families and other children who have been through the same thing, and have survived and come out strong.
- It is important for the child to be aware that there are other forms of conflict resolution as alternatives to the violence they witnessed at home. Let them know that they can be strong and assertive without being abusive.
- Let the child know he or she has a right to be safe. You may wish to help him or her develop a self-protection plan if s/he is still living in a violent situation. Although an adult is primarily responsible for the child's safety and well being, it is important that in an abusive environment, s/he know that s/he also needs to take care of him/herself.
- Encourage the child to respect other people's opinion, feelings and space.
- Encourage positive experiences for the child. This includes having fun, making new friends and healthy play. This will also contribute to enhancing the child's self-esteem.
- Help the child strengthen his or her self-esteem. This is essential, as children who have witnessed or been recipients of violence often feel disempowered and helpless. This can be done through a variety of ways including all of the above. Let the child know that she is important, and has capacities to be respected, loved, cared for, and to be part of a positive and enjoyable interaction with other people.
*Names changed to protect WAO's client's confidentiality.
Prepared by Jaclyn Kee
Women's Aid Organisation - 20 Years of Service to Women and Children
Fortnightly Column by WAO on Sunday Mail (Reprinted with permission from Sunday Mail)