Countless children today are beings scarred, many physically, but many more emotionally, and they will bear and experience the pain of those scars for their entire life. Children who witness domestic violence will likely have deficiencies in cognitive skills, lower life expectancy, and a higher risk of developing violent behaviors. Many of these children meet the criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and have substantially lower IQs; in fact, it has been reported that 40% had lower reading abilities than children from non-violent homes, and they cry excessively and have eating and sleeping problems.
Domestic violence damages more than the physical body, and threatens the fabric of society.
If their own scars were not enough, what these children have witnessed has encroached on their developing minds which often results in them repeating those violent acts. In short, they are three times more likely to repeat the domestic violence they witnessed and 74% more likely to commit a violent crime. In addition, 63% of all boys, age 11-20, who commit murder, kill the man who abused their mother; in fact, these young boys are taught at a young age to treat violence as a way of life. Witnessing domestic violence is not only a threat to society, but to the very children who witness it. Sadly, these children are six times more likely to commit suicide.
As children age, they use different methods to cope with the violence they witness at home. Preschoolers show regressive behaviors such as thumb-sucking and anxiety with strangers. School-age children experience self-blame, violent outbursts, and regressive behaviors such as bed-wetting. In adolescents, you may begin to see signs of truancy, drug abuse, and sexual activity.
A child that is experiencing or witnessing domestic violence is trying to understand how a normal relationship works, which is why the first priority is to help keep them from normalizing such behaviors and attitudes and instead show them what a healthy relationship looks like.
Here are some practical tips that may help:
- Start by being their friend, someone they can trust.
- Listen attentively and respectfully, and never make promises you cannot keep.
- As you spend time with them, introduce them to safe hobbies and activities, and reinforce examples of positive relationships.
- Help them be grounded with a stable, healthy family where they can witness what a healthy familial relationship looks like.
- Reinforce positive behavior by telling them often that violence is not okay, that they are not at fault, that they are important, and that it is not their responsibility to prevent or change domestic violence.
- At the same time, remember to ask them how they feel, and listen attentively and respectfully to them.
Together we can help the next generation heal from the emotional, and at times, physical scars caused by the domestic violence in their homes, and to develop healthy, loving relationships.
Claudio Consuegra, D.Min., and Pamela Consuegra, Ph.D., direct family ministries for the Adventist Church in North America.