You Can Make A Difference Now (YCMADN): If Children Live with Hostility They Learn to Fight

Posted on 16 November 2011


Children who have been exposed to abuse are very scared and have very strong emotional reactions which they don't understand. * Photos depict models.


Jessica*, 12, is a little shy and answers questions about herself hesitantly. But when she talks about her father, her voice changes and she speaks surely. She asserts that she does not miss him and doesn’t ever want to see him again.

“He is always angry and I don’t know why. I would wait for him to go to work every day because when he is at home, all of us are scared. No one really talks when he is at home because he will call us stupid and scold us with bad words.

“He lies and he doesn’t care for me. He doesn’t care for any of us,” she says when asked about her father. “He used to scold and beat us all the time and when we cried, he would lock us in the room for a few days. He wouldn’t give us rice or any food. No, I don’t miss him at all.”

Although Jessica should be in Year 6, she hasn’t attended school for the past two years. She is currently staying at the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) shelter for abused women and children with Daphne*, her three-year-old sister. The girls came to the shelter in September, after their mother made the brave decision to leave her abusive husband and take her four young children with her. With the help of some family members, they sought refuge at WAO.

After about a month at the shelter, Jessica’s mother found a job and moved out of the Shelter with her two sons, aged five and nine. She has had to leave Jessica and Daphne at the shelter temporarily, until she is able to get on her feet and earn enough to support her entire family.

“My mother is working. She told me that she will take me with her when she has saved enough money. She comes to see me on Sundays, not every Sunday but sometimes. I miss my mother.”

Jessica is just one of the abused children who seek refuge in WAO every year. There are presently 16 children in the shelter.

Living with violence

In the three years she has worked with WAO, social worker Uma Rajah Denram has learnt a lot about the impact of abuse on children.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she says. “When I first joined WAO three years ago, I was traumatised.”

“Mostly, they are afraid, angry and confused. They suffer from lack of attention and as a result, often act out - they cry a lot, are hyperactive and may be aggressive. They don’t want to return home because of fear.

“People assume that domestic violence happens between just the husband and wife. But children are also the victims of domestic violence. They suffer the consequences too,” she points out.

The impact of abuse on the children manifests in many ways, explains Uma.

“Some children become subdued and isolate themselves when they are in a group. They are scared to open up and rarely talk. Some become wary of adults. Some crave attention and therefore they misbehave because they know if they do, someone will pay them attention, even if it’s to scold them.

“Often, the eldest child or the son, will take over as the head of the family if the mother leaves the home. He may be just 10 but might behave like a 30-year-old as he feels he has to protect his family. Some children take their anger out on the mother as they feel she allowed the abuse to go on. And, some children behave like their abuser, whether consciously or not. Even though children understand that violence is wrong, they sometimes still act aggressively because violence is what they have learnt at home.

“There was a nine-year-old boy at our shelter who told me that he hated his father and he did not want to be angry and aggressive like his father. But, one day during a group activity, one of the younger children in the group didn’t do what he was asked to do. This nine-year-old boy stood up and started scolding the younger child. He wanted to hit the child.

“Although he said he didn’t want to become like his abusive father, he behaved exactly like his father. Why? That was the environment he grew up in. If he was naughty, he was scolded and beaten. His father went to work and his mother stayed at home to clean and cook. If she didn’t fulfil her duties well, she was beaten. So, it’s okay for men to hit women. Abuse is a learned behaviour,” stressed Uma.

Social learning and development theory suggests that children learn that aggression is the appropriate way to resolve conflicts, especially within the context of intimate relationships. 
* Photos depict models.

Social learning and development theory suggests that children learn that aggression is the appropriate way to resolve conflicts, especially within the context of intimate relationships. Research shows that children who are exposed to violent and abusive behaviour either consciously or subconsciously pick up these behaviour patterns and replicate them in their own relationships.

“There was another boy, he was six or seven years old and was always shouting at his mother. I asked him why and he said, ‘I have to shout. If I ask her for something nicely, she may not do it. But if I shout at her, she will do it immediately. She will listen to me’. Where did he learn this?” says Uma.

The healing process

Research has consistently shown that a high percentage of children living with domestic violence are themselves abused by the same perpetrator.

Not all children who grow up in violent homes are physically abused, but chances are they’d not have been spared some form of violence or another. They’d have been subjected to emotional and psychological abuse from growing up in an insecure environment where they are most likely to have been treated harshly.

Developmental research shows that early intervention with children exposed to violence and abuse can help children make sense of their feelings and thoughts and help them control their behaviour and improve interactions with others.

“Healing is a very long process,” says Serene Sin, a counsellor/therapist with at the Thang Hsiang Mitra Welfare Organisation. 

“In many cases, (the effects of abuse) manifests only later in life. Unless children get help and go through therapy, they will not be able to heal or cope.”

Sin employs play therapy and sand therapy - two forms of psychotherapy - to help children with behavioural problems.

“Children who have been exposed to abuse are very scared and have very strong emotional reactions which they don’t understand. They don’t know why they are being beaten. Are they not good enough? Have they been bad? This is especially true with younger children who believe everything they are told. If the abuser tells them they are stupid, they will believe they are stupid. As a result, they develop very low self-esteem.

“They also will find it difficult to trust. Usually, the perpetrators are their parents or caretakers whom the children love unconditionally. So when the people who they love and trust the most abuse them, they become confused. Who do they trust? This will affect their adult relationships.

“It is a little different with older children as they are able to think more logically. If the abuser hits them or belittles them, they will look for reinforcements elsewhere, either with their peers, teachers or relatives. They are able to rationalise: They didn’t do anything bad so why are they being punished? Still, they too must get help in coping with the violence as the effects of abuse may manifest later on,” says Sin.

Play therapy, explains Sin, allows children to deal with their emotions through play. Instead of making them talk about what’s troubling them - as in adult therapy sessions – children use toys or other props to express the emotions at their own pace. Playing comes naturally to children and by allowing them to do what comes naturally, they are able to relax, feel comfortable and play out what happened to them without feeling threatened or as if they are being interrogated.

Sand therapy is a subset of play therapy whereby children play with the toys in a tray of sand - being in touch with something of nature (sand) is believed to be therapeutic.

Sin explains, “We allow the child to play with toys like animals, figurines, toy cars and houses at their own pace. As they play, the healing process is already happening. If they are angry with someone, they may choose a figurine and bury it in the sand or hit the tray with it to release their feelings. When they play, we don’t intervene immediately. We just observe them.”

Typically, a positive change in the behaviour or demeanour of a child will only be seen after six sessions - that is if the abuse is not severe. In cases of more severe abuse, it may take at least a dozen sessions of play.

“Even after 12 sessions, not every child will be willing to talk about their emotions. But, you will be able to see the change in their behaviour. And, the next time they feel aggression or get upset, they will be able to deal with it better as they have learnt a way to release their emotions,” says Sin who has been a counsellor/ therapist for over a decade.

* The children's names have been changed to protect their identity.

Helping children cope

Some mothers in domestic violence situation use silence or denial to try to cope, and keep their family together. But, most children would actually appreciate a chance to acknowledge the violence thay are experiencing at home, and to talk about the emotions they are feeling be it fear, anger, confusion or hatred.

Here are some ways you to help children living with violence:

- Talk to your children and listen to them. Be honest about the situation, without frightening them. Reassure them that the violence is not their fault and that they are not responsible for the behaviour of the abuser. Explain to them that violence is wrong and that it does not solve problems. Your children will naturally look up to you and trust you - try not to break that trust by directly lying to them.

- Encourage your children to talk about their feelings and their wishes. If they find it difficult to verbalise their feelings, you could perhaps do an activity together, encourage them to draw or write about what is happening and how they feel about it.

- Let your child use his or her own words to express what they feel. Let them take their time; do not interrupt and fill in the blanks for them.

- Some children prefer to talk in an environment in which they feel safe. You can take them out to a place they feel comfortable, so they feel they are able to talk.

- While you may believe that despite the abuse, it is best for your children to keep the family together, be aware that your children will feel more secure with one parent in a stable environment than with two parents when the environment is unstable and violent.

- Reassure them that you love them and hug them always.

- If the violence is serious, protect your children by taking them to a safe place. Enlist the help of a trusted friend to help you should you need to move your children.

- Don’t make promises you can’t keep.

- Try and remain calm to reassure your children, so they do not worry about you.

Make a difference

For the past 30 years, Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) has been helping women in violent relationships, and providing them with support services and facilities. They provide shelter and counseling to abused women and their children.

WAO is starting a fundraising and education campaign - You Can Make A Difference Now! (MAD) – to raise RM300,000 by Dec 31. The Star is partnering with them to create more awareness on the issue of violence against women by running a series of articles on violence against women in October and November.

You can also leave your comments on the issue on The Star Online Facebook page ( to support the campaign.

Log on to to donate. You can also write a cheque made payable to Women’s Aid Organisation and send it to P.O. Box 493, Jalan Sultan, 46760 Petaling Jaya, Selangor.




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