By Abby Esquivel, LCSW, therapist and owner of Be and Belong Counseling LLC.
As a child therapist specializing in trauma, I have heard the implications of domestic violence often dismissed from caseworkers, caregivers, and agencies alike in a multitude of settings:
“It was just DV.”
“The child didn’t even witness the abuse.”
“S/he was just a baby when removed from the home.”
I can see where people are coming from. It could seem that the child who has “only” witnessed or experienced living in a home with domestic violence is surely not as traumatized and affected as a child who was personally abused.
The truth is, we now have research that confirms the opposite. The most significant psychological outcomes down the road are associated with children who grow up in homes with domestic violence (Grant, 2019). This means that to experience physical abuse is actually BETTER, on a neurological level, for the child to make sense of and heal from than growing up in a home with intimate partner violence.
Let’s back up and consider child development. In a healthy child-parent relationship, a child would have a need and the need would be met by the parent. This pattern occurs a million times over and over, and it’s what creates secure attachment. Children feel safe, know their voices matter, and their physical and emotional needs are cared for. When a child is reaching out for help and their caregiver is hurt or is the source of their stress, then the child is left without supports. This causes severe neurological disorganization and would be considered an attachment rupture, or attachment injury.
A lot of this has to do with children being egocentric by nature. This means that up until age 8, and sometimes longer, a child has no other option but to consider themselves the center of the universe. So, if a child under this age witnesses domestic violence, then they are left to believe that “this is my fault.” From a survival perspective, it’s maladaptive to see the parents’ point of view or consider any other perspectives. If the child blames themselves, then they are under the impression that they could actually change the dynamic. You can imagine what kind of repercussions come from this false narrative as the child grows and develops their own relationships.
What if my child never actually saw the physical violence?
I have worked with many parents who wonder if their child was adversely affected even if their child supposedly did not witness the abuse between their caregivers. It is understandable for victim parents to hope that their child is oblivious to the abuse. However, research shows that children actually witness up to 80% of the physical violence (UNICEF, 2006). and that they suffer profound effects of this toxic stress. The younger the brain is exposed to toxic stress, the bigger the impact in neural connections, healthy attachments, and emotional regulation (Gobbel, 2018). So, while many would assume that infants are not impacted by domestic violence, we now know that due to the impressionable nature of their brain that the impacts are more devastating to their development.
Another pattern found in parent-child dyads experiencing domestic violence includes emotional and/or physical neglect. By enduring the abuse, the victim parent understandably develops depression or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. These trauma responses are normal but leave the child without this serve-and-return dynamic which is crucial for healthy attachment. The child, being egocentric, would blame themselves and internalize narratives like “I am bad,” “This is my fault,” or “I am unimportant.” Independent of whether a child witnesses domestic violence with their eyes or witnesses their parent in a chronic space of hypervigilance, on a body-based level, children feel tension and the gaps in safety in the home (Brown and Bzostek, 2003). Their bodies might react to the trauma of the home with bedwetting, upset stomachs, nightmares, isolation, and excessive worry.
So, what now?
If you are a parent who has survived or is continuing to endure domestic violence, there is hope for you and your children. Beyond Power and Control has a myriad of resources to assist you in finding safety and healing for your family. Thankfully, from a neurological perspective, neuroplasticity is on your side: the brain has the ability to change and “re-wire” around safety. (Purvis and Cross, 2007). While your child has undoubtedly been affected, finding safety for yourself, healing your own trauma, and finding a trusted therapist for your child are positive initial steps towards healing.
Abby Esquivel, LCSW is a therapist and owner of Be and Belong Counseling LLC. Abby has worked with survivors of domestic violence and their children in a variety of settings, including local domestic violence shelters, adolescent group homes, crisis teams, and private practice. Abby believes in the innate resiliency of survivors of trauma and is honored to be a witness to their healing process. Abby is also passionate about fostering healthy and secure attachments between mothers and their children using play therapy. For more information about Abby and her work, please visit her website at www.beandbelongcounseling.com.
Brown, B., and Bzostek, S. (2003). Violence in the lives of children. Crosscurrents, 1. Bethesda, MD: Child Trends. Retrieved from http://www.childtrends.org/wp-content/uploads/2003/01/2003-15ViolenceChildren.pdf.
Cross, D., and Purvis, K. (2007). The connected child: bring hope and healing to your adoptive family. New York, New York: McGraw-Hill Education.
Gobbel, R. (Producer). (2018) Toxic tress and the developing brain. [Video webinar]. Retrieved from http://gobbelcounseling.com/.
rant, S. (Producer). (2019) The myth of infant resilience. [Video webinar]. Retrieved from http://gobbelcounseling.com/.
NICEF. (2006). Behind closed doors: the impact of domestic violence on children. Retrieved from https://www.unicef.org/protection/files/BehindClosedDoors.pdf.