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3 Steps to Break the Domestic Violence Cycle in Kids' Lives
With the right help, children can learn how to break the cycle of domestic abuse
- Mar 16, 2023
This story was originally published in 2017. It was updated in 2023.
Not all children in households where domestic abuse occurs are directly abused, but they are all exposed to increased fear and stress, and suffer trauma as a result. All children exposed to domestic violence are at risk to become victims of abuse or abusers themselves. According to a UNICEF study, being exposed to domestic violence is the single greatest predictor of children becoming victims or perpetrators as adults. This study shows that children who are exposed to violence in the home are 15 times more likely to be physically and/or sexually assaulted than the national average.
But there are steps you can take as a parent or caregiver to help a child learn how to break the cycle and grow up to be safe, happy and healthy.
How Does Exposure to Domestic Violence Affect Children?
Unremitting, serious stressors can cause long-lasting changes to the brain that can create serious vulnerabilities. The constant bombardment of stress hormones caused by exposure to domestic violence can affect every aspect of a child’s functioning. By examining images of the brain, researchers found evidence that exposure to trauma changes the brain.
It’s easy to connect mental health disorders in both adults and children (like depression and anxiety) to childhood trauma. But it turns out there are physical effects that can result from childhood trauma as well. Adults who experienced damaging childhoods are more likely to have chronic health problems such as heart disease, cancer, liver disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, according to the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study. The study found that the more adverse experiences people had as children, the more likely they were to have adverse outcomes as adults related to health, behavior and opportunity.
Thankfully, positive coping strategies learned from a supportive caregiver can make all the difference in the world.
Brian Martin knows all too well how exposure to abuse as a child can affect someone as an adult. A survivor of Childhood Domestic Violence (CDV), Martin formed the Childhood Domestic Violence Association after he realized how CDV was impacting his life. His goal was to help victims of CDV not just reach their full potential, but also inspire others to do the same
While his book, Invincible: The 10 Lies You Learn Growing Up with Domestic Violence, and the Truths to Set You Free talks to the adult children who have lived through CDV, he acknowledges that the nonabusive, survivor-parent also plays a part in helping stop the cycle. Importantly, it’s never too early to start working to break the cycle of abuse.
The goal is to build up a child’s psychological resilience, which the American Psychological Association defines as “the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences, especially through mental, emotional, and behavioral flexibility and adjustment to external and internal demands.” This resiliency is what helps children break the cycle of abuse, instead of falling into the negative patterns an abuser established.
Here are three steps Martin has laid out on how to help a child overcome the harmful effects of domestic violence.
Step 1: Start the Conversation
“The first thing the parent needs to do is have an open conversation with their child,” says Martin. “Ask, ‘Did you ever hear mommy and daddy fight? Did you ever see dad hurt me?’” Let the child unload their memories. “Children need to be acknowledged that they hurt, too.”
Many people think that if a child couldn’t possibly have known what was happening because the abuse occurred when they were asleep, they were too young to remember it or the victim was able to hide the bruises. However, studies show that 80 to 90 percent of children can give detailed descriptions of abuse that occurred within their home, even when parents were sure children didn’t realize what was happening.
“I can’t tell you how many stories I hear from adults who tell me about violence that occurred in their house, and they end it with, ‘But then they got a divorce and I remember it because that was the year I went into kindergarten,’” says Martin. Even when the violence occurs at a very young age, Martin says adults even over the age of fifty still struggle with the after effects, in large part because it was never acknowledged. “No doubt these questions can be asked at any age,” he says.
Learn more about having conversations with children with “8 Ways to Talk with Kids Exposed to Domestic Violence.”
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Step 2: Reassure Them
“Make sure your children understand that, of course, this didn’t happen because of them. It wasn’t their fault and it wasn’t their job to stop it,” says Martin. Children who grow up with CDV can experience feelings of guilt, resentment, anger and hopelessness. They may feel alone, unloved and lack confidence.
“One of the best things a parent can do is to focus on these emotions without even needing to go back into the details of the violence,” explains Martin.
If all of a sudden you see your child’s self-esteem and confidence plummet, you’ll know this could be triggered by fear from what they experienced or a feeling of powerlessness for not being able to stop it.
Martin suggests referencing positive emotions: “You’re accomplished because of what you overcame. You have confidence because of what you experienced. You’re past the violence—that means you can overcome anything.”
Martin says it’s also powerful to define what kids are going through. If they’re old enough to understand what domestic violence is, you can also tell them what CDV is. This can help kids better understand that what they’re going through is shared by others and there is support. “By giving them those words, you’ve given them a great gift,” Martin says.
Learn more about helping kids heal from exposure to abuse from our webinar with domestic violence expert Lundy Bancroft, Healing and Recovery in Children Exposed to Domestic Violence.
Step 3: Dispel the Lies, Find the Facts
Martin encourages teaching children—and adults—how to unlearn lies that CDV may have ingrained in their brains growing up. Lies like, “I’m scared. Bad things are going to happen to me” prevent kids from reaching their full potential and keep them within the domestic violence cycle.
“One of our [CDV’s] leading researchers says the brain’s job is to find evidence of what it believes is true, whether it’s true or not. If you believe you’re a sad person, an angry person, unattractive, unloved, unworthy—the brain finds evidence to make this true,” says Martin.
Dispelling those lies in your children early on will help them grow up looking at themselves differently, Martin believes. For instance, instead of thinking bad things will definitely keep happening to them, help them to believe that because of what they went through, they have courage and resilience to get through the bad parts of life.
As an example, a child might say or think, “It was my fault. I caused it, and I should have stopped it.” But children think emotionally, not rationally. Carrying around guilt can be common, and can lead to feelings of unworthiness and shame. Try to reframe this harmful thought and feeling with an understanding of individual personal responsibility with a statement like ‘I am not responsible for the actions of others.’
Leaning on factual evidence can be helpful, too. For example, a child might feel afraid, so helping them see the reality that they’re safe can be used to help combat the lies their trauma is telling them about their safety. You can create a safety plan with a child, show them how your doors lock or emphasize the distance between them and the person who abused them.
Learn more about constructing truthful statements and dispelling trauma-created lies with “Believe This, Not That.”
Kids Have a Choice, and You Can Help
It’s important to both instill in kids and understand yourself that just because a child grows up in a home where abuse occurs does not guarantee that they will become a victim of abuse or an abuser. While they may be at higher risk, they can make the choice to not abuse and learn how to recognize and escape unsafe situations.
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