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Children who witness or are direct victims of a domestic violence perpetrator can endure lifelong effects of this trauma. Even if a parent believes a child or baby is too young to remember what happened, psychologists attest there is an imprint left from living through violence at home.
The estimated number of children who are exposed to violence at home, sometimes called childhood domestic violence or CDV, ranges from 3.3 million up to 10 million, a concerningly large range. Most surveys will define being exposed to domestic violence as:
- Seeing or hearing violence
- Witnessing consequences of the violence, such as injuries
- Observing damage to the home or belongings
- Police involvement
Keep in mind this number doesn’t account for the number of children who are direct victims of physical, emotional or verbal child abuse by the abusive parent. It’s estimated that in at least 40 percent of homes where domestic violence is present, physical and other forms of child maltreatment are also taking place.
The Importance of Seeing Traumatized Kids
Brian F. Martin, founder of the non-profit Childhood Domestic Violence Association, says that “one hundred percent of children exposed to domestic violence are affected by it.” Not recognizing or addressing the trauma can compound the impact as a child grows up.
“We can educate on bullying but not this? Educators think bullying is a bigger issue than this [CDV] because they don’t know what to call it,” attests Martin.
The signs of trauma in children can look like the following:
Infants: Decreased responsiveness, fussiness, trouble eating and sleeping
Pre-Schoolers: Aggression, behavior problems, frequent bed wetting, isolating themselves from peers, feeling unsafe, suffering separation anxiety, bad dreams, self-blame, lower verbal skills
Grade Schoolers: Aggression, frequent outbursts, bullying others, frequent bed-wetting, poor quality peer relations, emotionally withdrawing, fear, emotional responses not matching situation, lower verbal skills and reading levels
Adolescents: Dating violence, bullying, use of drugs or alcohol, early sexual activity, emotionally withdrawing or detaching, frequent health complaints, short attention span, lower verbal skills, difficulty trusting others
Trauma Can Be Misdiagnosed for ADHD in Children
The above symptoms can sometimes be mistaken for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. Many children exposed to trauma have trouble concentrating and act out at inappropriate times, a hallmark of ADHD. Yet, the treatment for ADHD—often times stimulant medications—don’t address the root of the problem, which is trauma.
In a study by Pediatrician Nicole Brown, MD, of 65,000 U.S. children, her findings showed an overlap between ADHD diagnoses and higher-than-normal levels of poverty, divorce, violence and family substance abuse. Children who endured four or more traumatic childhood events were three times more likely to be prescribed medication for ADHD. “We need to think more carefully about screening for trauma and designing a more trauma-informed treatment plan,” Brown reported at an annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies in 2014.
What Are Adverse Childhood Experiences?
Adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, are traumatic events that can occur in childhood. Studies show that the more ACEs someone experiences, the higher the risk of chronic health problems can occur in adulthood.
There are 10 main ACEs listed in the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study though, since its release, new surveys have added other types of trauma. These include witnessing violence outside the home, witnessing a sibling being abused, living in an unsafe neighborhood, being bullied by a peer or adult, experiencing racism or being separated from a loved one due to deportation.
To find out your ACEs score, total how many of the 10 questions below you’d answer “yes” to:
Prior to your 18th birthday:
__ Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often swear at you, insult you, put you down or humiliate you? Or did they act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?
__ Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often push, grab, slap or throw something at you, or ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?
__ Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever touch or fondle you, or have you touch their body in a sexual way? Or did they attempt to or actually have oral, anal or vaginal intercourse with you?
__ Did you often or very often feel that no one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special, or that your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?
__ Did you often or very often feel that you didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you? Or did you feel that your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it?
__ Were your parents ever separated or divorced?
__ Was your mother or stepmother often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped or had something thrown at her? Or was she sometimes, often or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist or hit with something hard? Or was she ever repeatedly hit over the span of a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife?
__ Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic, or who used street drugs?
__ Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide?
__ Did a household member go to prison?
Your total number of “yes” answers is your ACE score.
A Higher Ace Score Increases One’s Risk for Health and Social Problems
In the original ACEs study, the results of which were published in 1998, the findings showed that 87 percent of the 17,000 people polled had more than one ACE. And as the number of ACEs increased, it was discovered that so did a person’s risk for chronic disease, and social and emotional problems in adulthood including:
- Heart disease
- Heavy drinking
- Dropping out of high school
- Abusive intimate partners
- Passing ACEs down to the next generation
Preventing ACEs Early Means Getting Kids Support
While the warnings of adverse childhood experiences have been talked about for decades since the study was done, it wasn’t until 2019 that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) put out a formal call for earlier and more collaborative intervention in cases of childhood trauma. Preventing ACEs, said the CDC, could reduce the following health problems significantly:
- Up to 21 million cases of depression
- Up to 1.9 million cases of heart disease
- Up to 2.5 million cases of obesity
Through educational programs, an increase in family-friendly workplace policies to help survivors of trauma, improved school environments that address ACEs, and more education in healthcare on the subject, the CDC hopes ACEs can be focused on more aggressively than they have been.
And while ACEs can’t necessarily be reversed, the effects can be mitigated with the right approach. Mainly, what children living with trauma need most are supportive and steadfast adults in their corner.
In a story by Clinical Psychologist Meg Jay published in the Wall Street Journal in 2017, the author detailed a study of 400 extraordinarily high achievers. When researchers looked at their lives, they found 75 percent of them had survived critical childhood challenges—perhaps better classified as traumas— including the loss of a parent, severe poverty or abuse. It doesn’t mean that trauma was a positive thing, but rather points to the social support these achievers likely had compared to those who endured a tougher path in life.
Says Jay, "It is a myth that resilient people don't need help. Seeking support is what resilient people do."
Creating a Safety Plan with Kids
For those survivors still trapped with an abusive partner and have children at home, there will likely be a time when you feel like it’s time to go. The last straw can look different for every survivor. But know that the longer you stay, the more likely it is that an abuser’s tactics will escalate in severity.
A safety plan is a document that survivors can prepare before leaving so they have a clear idea of what they can do during or between abusive incidents to keep themselves and their children safe. This might involve how and when they can escape, where they plan to go, who they can rely on to help them and the additional protections they can put in place to possibly stay gone for good. You can find a DIY safety planning worksheet here.
If you plan on taking your children out of state when you escape, make sure you understand the laws of your state regarding child custody or an abuser may try to report you for parental kidnapping. It’s best to talk to a lawyer if you plan on leaving the state with your children, without your partner knowing. For more precautions on leaving your partner with your children, read, “Fleeing an Abuser With Your Children.”
How you can involve children in that safety planning process depends on their age:
- Babies, Toddlers and Preschoolers
Survivors who are leaving abusers and who have very young children will undoubtedly take the children with them when they escape. These children aren’t old enough to participate in or understand a safety plan. But toddlers and preschoolers should still be assured that they are safe. Bring comfort items from home, if possible, when escaping to a shelter or other temporary living arrangement.
- School-Age Children
Survivors with school-age children can start to involve them in safety plans by teaching them about general safety tips—not to talk to or go with strangers, how to identify trusted adults that they can ask for help, how to call 911 in an emergency. You can also teach them a code word that can be used in dangerous situations in general. For example, if your word is “giraffe,” you could teach your child to say something like, “We’re having fun. We just watched a show about a giraffe,” if they need to call you from a play date and the situation feels unsafe. And you could also teach them that you might use the code word to signal to them that they should call 911, without specifically mentioning an abusive situation that might trigger that call.
With children in this age group, if it’s feasible, when you plan your departure, you can involve another trusted person to help transition them to a safe place as they leave school. Consider adding one or two people to the list of those allowed to pick up your child after school.
Be aware that giving kids in this age group too many details is not a great idea. “Younger children can’t really do secrets. A little kid might be walking [with an abuser] and say, ‘This is where I’m supposed to wait for Mommy.’ They are trusting,” says Susan Bernstein, a MA-based licensed social worker and marriage and family therapist with expertise in domestic violence. This could be used by an abuser to manipulate the child and put the protective parent in added danger.
- Middle Schoolers and Older Kids
If you feel your child is old enough and has the maturity to be trusted with more details and sometimes scarier details, you can share more, like the reason you have a safety code word and an exit plan. With older kids, you may be able to put a plan in place and rely on them to follow it without an adult’s help. For example, you can identify a safe home or location and tell your child that if they receive a text, call or message from you then they need to go there without question. Older children might also be able to help escort and comfort younger siblings. Walk through the plan with them and make sure they know the route to their safe location, since emotions will likely be running high when you put your plan in place.
You may need to remind older kids that it’s not their job to protect you from abuse. Tell them, “I’m the adult here to protect you, not the other way around.” Older children need to understand that they need to go to the designated place and you will meet them there, even if that means leaving you with the abuser.
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Getting Kids Out Before Things Escalate
Parents may worry that separating their children from their other parent, even though that parent is abusive, could cause more harm than good. But advocates disagree.
Staying with an abusive partner increases not only a survivors’ overall harm risk, but also their lethality risk as an abuser’s tactics escalate. In other words, the longer you stay with an abuser, the more likely it is you may not make it out alive. Children are also at an increased risk of violence the longer they’re living with an abuser, as well as being at an increased risk of seeing their protective parent severely harmed or killed.
In many cases where an abuser kills their partner, a child in the home is killed in the process of coming to their protective parent’s aid. Multiple studies have also found abusers kill children as a retaliation tactic against their partner.
When an abuser has access to a gun, the risk of being murdered increases by 500 percent. In recent decades, more intimate partner homicides have been committed with guns than with all other weapons combined.
Ways to Support Kids During and After Trauma
During and after trauma, kids need to feel safe and loved. Here are some ways to do just that:
- Remind Kids It’s Not Their Fault. Just like many adult survivors, children who live through domestic violence might feel blame and shame for what happened. As a supportive adult in their life, remind them that the abuse was never their fault. Abuse is a choice that abusers make, and a bad choice at that. Here are six ways to explain violence to kids.
- Make Sure Kids Feel Loved. This is the time for extra love, reassurance, coddling, even “spoiling” to some extent. Kids who’ve endured trauma are unsure about the world in general. Everyone and everything can feel unsafe. Trauma can cause kids to be withdrawn, have problems concentrating or act out in class, and have trouble sleeping or experience nightmares. These are all symptoms that could indicate PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Attentive, one-on-one time is key right now to help kids feel safe. Check in often and really listen when they tell you how they’re doing. Acknowledge and allow all the feelings that arise.
- Explore Therapy or Counseling. If possible, finding a therapist trained in childhood trauma and domestic violence is going to help your child even more to process their emotions. Even if a child outwardly seems OK, there could be things they’re not able to tell their protective parent or caregiver that a therapist may help them to understand.
- Model Healthy Coping Skills. As the protective parent or caregiver, you, too, are likely going through your own trauma post-abuse. Modeling healthy coping skills doesn’t mean you have to pretend everything is perfect once you’ve left the abuser. Quite the opposite—showing children how to process emotions may look like crying or getting upset, but doing so in such a way that the child knows it’s not their fault and that you’re OK. Talk about how you’re feeling openly and discuss tactics you use to feel better. Maybe it’s taking deep breaths, listening to a calming meditation, going for a walk or watching a funny TV show.
- Help Kids Find Their Bravery Again. After domestic violence, a child may fear new situations and people. Starting school and being separated from a protective parent might be difficult. Let kids know that bravery isn’t about squelching those fears but doing things despite them. Help them build up confidence to try new things—even if it’s talking to a cashier at the grocery store or ordering their own meal at a restaurant. Consider encouraging them to join a school team or club, or sign them up for a class that teaches self-confidence, like theater or a martial art. “I know it’s scary, but we’re going to get through this together,” is a powerful statement that lets them know they’re not alone in this next part of the healing process. Point out times they faced their fears bravely and did something anyway.
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