A few weeks ago, I experienced an emotional and painful encounter with childhood exposure to domestic violence; that left me feeling overwhelmed and bewildered. It was a big day for our family, as one of my sisters was getting married. I arrived at my sister’s house and was greeted by the joyous sounds of children playing, all excited about the wedding. After a few minutes, I noticed one of the kids looked sad and asked him if something was wrong. He answered that his parents had a fight and was worried about it. Going on to say that he heard his mom saying she was calling the police, and he hoped that nothing would happen to his dad. This little angel was experiencing childhood trauma due to having witnessed domestic violence.
Devastated to hear the anguish in his voice, I reassured him all was going to be ok, and nothing was going to happen to his father. He hugged me and ran off to play with the other children. I sat there, and it was as if I was looking at my five-year-old young self, almost 40 years ago. My two sisters and I sat on our bed, listening to our parents arguing in the room next door. As their voices escalated, we became more and more frightened, scared. My parents had an abusive relationship, it was chaotic, and life at home was unstable, the result of frequent domestic violence.
Childhood Trauma – Domestic Violence
One of my earliest memories, I was probably six years old, is of me huddled in bed, pretending to be asleep, as mom shared with my grandmother the details of the last fight she had with dad. Grandma listened and gave advice, and I remember thinking, “I will never marry a man who hurts me” before crying myself asleep. I was an invisible victim of the domestic violence that was taking place in our home.
What is Domestic Violence
There is much discrepancy in what qualifies as domestic violence. It has been estimated that at least 3.3 million children witness physical and verbal spousal abuse each year, including a range of behaviors from insults and hitting to fatal assaults with guns and knives (Carlson, 1984; Jaffe, Wolfe, & Wilson, 199, Domestic Violence). At the time of this post, this research data is almost 40 years old. It is important to note that much of the violence witnessed by children is not reported.
Potential Impact of Domestic Violence on Children
There have been several studies that indicate that children who grow up in homes where domestic violence is an occurrence are more likely to be abused and neglected. Children respond differently to their environment and will react accordingly.
It wasn’t until we moved to America when I was ten years old that I learned that this behavior was wrong. As a silent victim of domestic violence, I misbehaved at school, had mixed feelings toward my parents, a mix of love and anger, as well as an angry and sulky personality. I am still working out the long term effects of growing up in that environment.
My parents frequently argued, at times, these arguments would escalate to physical violence. As children, we witnessed their fighting and blows. My sisters and I would run and hide under the bed. We were so scared and learned to tiptoe around the house, afraid to call attention to ourselves. As children we became very adept at figuring out our parent’s moods, not wanting to give them a reason to argue, which could result in us children verbally scolded or physically hurt.
It is easy to think that children are not aware of what is going on around them, but I don’t believe that this is the case. Children are sensitive to the atmosphere at home and especially keen on their parent’s behavior. If they grow up witnessing fighting or physical violence, they can experience trauma, which has a severe consequence on their long term well being.
Long Term Effects of Domestic Violence
Children who grow up witnessing or experiencing physical violence have the potential to suffer from a lack of confidence and may engage in risky or dangerous behavior. The desire to please others to avoid uncomfortable and awkward situations is paramount, which can lead to difficulty in setting and establishing personal boundaries. Also, children learn from what they observe around them. Children who witness domestic violence may grow up thinking that (1) violence is an acceptable way to resolve problems or conflicts; (2) abuse is a normal part of life; (3) the perpetrator will go unpunished, and (4) violence is a way to control other people.
Many adults blame their lack of success on their parents or upbringing. I believe that at some point, one has to stop using childhood trauma as an excuse for unhappiness and shortcomings. I don’t make excuses, nor dismiss the abuse I experienced growing up, but I don’t want to live in the past. It can be incredibly painful and shameful to face our truth, however, if we don’t do it we are not able to move forward.
Sitting with our pain is not easy and very painful, but owning our truth can be liberating and healing. It has been very difficult for me to write about these experiences, debating several times if I truly wanted to share such personal details on a blog post. But I want to move past my personal history and create the life that I wish to have at this moment, free from shame.
Looking back, the domestic violence I witnessed shaped my personality and outlook on relationships. I grew up thinking that it was acceptable for a man to hurt a woman. That a woman had to listen to her husband or other male figures. If she didn’t, and he didn’t like it, he could beat her. I was frequently disciplined with harsh beatings every time I did something wrong, or whenever my parents didn’t like what I did. I wasn’t the exception; this was common for other children around me. Growing up, I found it difficult to form healthy relationships.
If you are a survivor of physical or domestic violence, know that it’s not your fault. You have nothing to be ashamed of. Nurture and love yourself. Allow a space for healing and know you are not your past. You have the ability to create a new life free of anger and violence for yourself.
Preventing Childhood Trauma As a Result of Domestic Violence
Pay close attention to the tone of voice when engaging in angry or hostile conversations around children. No matter the age, children become sensitive to the atmosphere around them. Be aware of how arguments can make others feel uncomfortable; remember that few people are privy to other’s personal history. Many children grow into adulthood without addressing the PTSD caused by their upbringing.
If you know someone who has, or is currently a victim of domestic violence, encourage them to seek help. There are many community resources that offer education, therapy and other services for women and children. Offer support and refrain from judgement, it takes courage for others to come forward and share their story.
Thank you for reading!