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Home Articles Ending Domestic Violence What Fuels Domestic Violence? Part 1: A Family Pattern

What Fuels Domestic Violence? Part 1: A Family Pattern

In a new series from DomesticShelters.org, we look at some of the reasons why there continues to be no shortage of abusive partners

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children recovering from trauma of childhood domestic violence

Abusers perpetrate domestic violence every day. The stats back that up, as do the advocates in shelters who answer emergency hotline calls from scared survivors every day. In fact, one statistic says that every minute, 24 people become the victim of rape, physical violence or stalking. 

So, the question is, despite the continued, dedicated efforts of advocates, law enforcement, the criminal justice system, batterer reform programs and nonprofits like DomesticShelters.org spreading awareness, why is domestic violence still so commonplace?

Why does it feel like as soon as one survivor escapes abuse, another dozen reach out for help?

In this series, we’re going to delve into some of the reasons why abuse continues to be perpetuated, and what is fueling abusers to continue to abuse. 

First up: Parental influence. 

Why Aren’t We Looking at the Kids?

Years ago, Brian Martin, a survivor of childhood domestic violence, decided as an adult to volunteer at a domestic violence shelter where he lived in New Jersey. What he saw didn’t surprise him. 

“There were far more children there than adults.”

Martin, himself, had stayed at a shelter just like that one as a child when his mother was escaping an abuser. Shelters are often the safe places where survivors can catch their breath, avoid an increasingly violent partner, and plan their next steps. Depending on the shelter, survivors may find support groups or workshops that can help them process their trauma, rebuild self-esteem and gain real-life skills to thrive independently.

But by and large, says Martin, who is today the founder and CEO of the Childhood Domestic Violence Association and author of Invincible: The 10 Lies You Learn Growing Up with Domestic Violence and the Truths to Set You Free, helping children deal with trauma (and ending the cycle) in-shelter and on an ongoing basis after shelter life can prove very challenging for a wide variety of reasons.

When Martin was in the planning phases of his nonprofit, he says he gathered together experts and researchers in the field of domestic violence to learn how he could help fill that gap of addressing childhood domestic violence. 

“I’ll never forget a researcher said one of the best predictors of whether you’ll be in a violent relationship is if you grew up with them,” Martin remembers. 

“All of the other researchers just nodded their head and looked down. That was a real problem because, if one of the best predictors if whether, as an adult, you’ll be in a relationship that involves domestic violence is whether or not you grew up living with it, and there are no services for those who grew up with [domestic violence], how do you stem that problem? And if there’s no awareness that this has an impact, then how do you begin to even address it?”

Studies Show Childhood Trauma Bleeds into Adulthood

In 1995, a study was done to explore the effects adverse childhood experiences had in adulthood. The ACE Study, as it became known, found that nearly two-thirds of participants had experienced at least one adverse childhood experience, and those who had one were 87 percent more likely to have two or more. 

The ACEs identified by researchers included

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Verbal abuse
  • Physical neglect
  • Emotional neglect
  • Having a family member who was depressed or diagnosed with a mental illness
  • Having a family member who was addicted to alcohol or another substance
  • Having a family member who was in prison
  • Witnessing their mother being abused
  • Losing a parent to separation, divorce or other reason

The study found that the higher the ACE score, or the more of the above experiences an adult lived through as a child, the higher the risk of or developing chronic disease or mental illness, being violent or being the victim of violence in adulthood. It also increased the likelihood of smoking, abusing alcohol or drugs, experiencing financial strain and having other relationship problems.

But it wasn’t until 2019, more than two decades later, that the CDC released their first statement calling for earlier and more collaborative intervention in cases of childhood trauma. Doing so, they said, would reduce the risk of at least five of the 10 leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease, diabetes and suicide. 

Not to mention, say advocates, it could save the next generation from continuing the cycle of domestic violence.

Why Do Some Abused Children Grow up to Abuse Others?

A licensed counselor based out of North Carolina, Katie Lear specializes in treating children through play and drama therapy, some who are survivors of childhood domestic violence. The abusive parents, she learns, more often than not were also victims of abuse in childhood. 

It’s a confounding outcome to many—why would someone who grew up being subjected to abuse make the choice to then abuse their own partner or children? Not all children of domestic violence will grow up to be victims or abusers, of course, and it should be noted that, statistically, more boys than girls will grow up to be abusive. Still, the question remains, why does that cycle repeat? Lear has one theory.

“One reason that children may emulate an abusive parent is due to a psychological concept called ‘identification with the aggressor.’ All children love and look up to their parents and aspire to be like them. When a parent is angry or violent, children face a dilemma: Do they fear the parent, or act like them?”

Lear says that mimicking a parent's aggressive behavior can sometimes help children move from a place of fear to a place of felt safety, preserving their parent-child relationship.

She also makes sure to note that this isn’t all kids, by any means. 

“Children are resilient, and many kids who grow up in hard situations are able to overcome that stress to enjoy healthy relationships as adults.”

Martin is one example. Growing up watching his father abuse his mother, Martin decided in adulthood to break that cycle, even though he struggled with self-esteem. 

One day, Martin spontaneously opened up to a stranger and told him about his childhood, and how he couldn’t stop his father from abusing his mother. Martin was only six years old when the abuse began, but still, he thought, what kind of person lets his mother be abused and not do anything?

“I should have been able to stop it,” he remembers saying. Because of this, Martin carried immense guilt.

But the stranger told him he didn’t see it that way. 

“He said, ‘I see it as you’ve experienced some things I couldn’t imagine ever going through. I feel like it must have made you strong, and that you must not be afraid of anything now.’ That was maybe the first time that I thought what I experienced actually created a greater strength,” says Martin. “It was a very powerful argument against my beliefs.” 

Still, as Lear points out, it’s hard to surmount the idea that your relationships as an adult can be different than what was modeled to you as a child. 

“Trauma has a cumulative effect, and the more traumatic events a family experiences, the more vulnerable a child will be to taking on that traumatic stress and potentially passing it on to the next generation,” Lear says. 

Martin remembers talking to his mother about it, who had also grown up living with domestic violence in childhood. 

“She said in a very somber tone, ‘I didn’t think I deserved any better.’ She said being with [his abusive father] was better than being alone.”

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How Do We Break the Cycle?

Julie Smirl, licensed clinical professional counselor and assistant professor at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., has been in practice for 30 years. At one point, she worked in women’s shelters, counseling survivors. She says there is a “high probability” of abuse continuing from one generation to the next. 

“What we know from epigenetics [the study of changes in gene expression] is that … domestic violence experienced by children will affect them and their perspectives on violence,” she says. 

In other words, living through abuse can change one’s response to violence growing up. Responses can be reflective of what the child has learned—for example, that violence is normal. Familiar. Acceptable.

Some people, says Smirl, simply haven’t learned anything different, which is why education is imperative, starting as early as possible in childhood. 

“So important. I think kids need to understand more about healthy relationships, for a start, as well as mental health issues, emotional regulation and what normal anger is.”

When kids only see violence as a response to anger, that’s what they’ll learn to do, says Smirl. 

Martin says research suggests the best predictor of resiliency in kids who have experienced abuse is to find a trusted mentor.

“Someone who steps in and helps you see what you cannot see for yourself. Someone who helps challenge a belief that you hold very firmly.”

In 2020, the Childhood Domestic Violence (CDV) Association began offering a Resilience-Focused Mentoring program to train professionals to work with children who have experienced CDV. 

This issue is still something most people don’t talk about, says Martin, who is hoping to change that, one child at a time. 

Lear says the most effective therapies for young children also include protective parents as an active partner in the therapy. 

“Children who have endured abuse often feel as though they've lost the ability to see their parent as a protector or ‘safe place.’ Therapy can help strengthen attachments that were stressed by the abuse, equip parents with specialized parenting skills to manage trauma-related behavior, and help children understand what happened to them in an age-appropriate way.”

Therapy is a start, but Lear says it’s also vital to provide support as families continue down the path of healing. 

“Families who survive abuse need support as they rebuild their lives, which may include therapy as well as support such as housing, childcare and employment opportunities. When they are placed in a nurturing environment, children cannot help but grow and heal. I believe if we gave adequate support to these children at young ages, we'd see a drastic reduction in domestic violence later in life.”