Innocent Victims: The Effects of Domestic Violence on Children, Part I

This is the sixth part in a series about domestic violence, in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. You may want to read Parts I, II, III, IV, and V. This will be Part I of II on how domestic violence affects children.

The abused partner is not the only victim of the domestic violence that occurs in the home. The children that live in that home suffer, as well, whether or not they are directly abused. Approximately 60% of people that abuse their partners will also abuse their children. And whether or not they are directly abusing their children, many of the tactics and ways of thinking that leads them to be abusive partners also becomes destructive in regards to their parenting ability and style. Even if an abuser is not a “child” abuser, they often parent in an authoritarian way, which has been shown to be destructive. Authoritarian parenting is highly demanding and directive, but not responsive. “They are obedience- and status-oriented, and expect their orders to be obeyed without explanation” (Baumrind, 1991, p. 62). These parents provide well-ordered and structured environments with clearly stated rules. Authoritarian parents can be divided into two types: nonauthoritarian-directive, who are directive, but not intrusive or autocratic in their use of power, and authoritarian-directive, who are highly intrusive.

Life with an abuser can be as stressful and confusing for the children as it is for their abused parent. In fact, children of an abused parent have been found to exhibit virtually every symptom that appears in children who are being abused directly. They watch the arguments; they feel the tension. As Bancroft (2002) says:

“When they hear screaming and name-calling, they worry about their parents’ feelings. They have visions of the family splitting up… which [can be a dreaded prospect]. If the abuser is physically scary, sometimes punching walls, knocking over chairs, or striking their abused parent, then a sharper kind of fear grips the children and may preoccupy them even during the calm periods in the home. Following incidents of abuse they may be wracked with guilt, feeling that they either caused their parent to be abused or should have found some way to have prevented it.

Witnessing incidents of abuse is just the beginning of what children endure, however. Abuse sends out shock waves that touch every aspect of family functioning. Hostility creeps into mothers’ relationships with their children, and siblings find themselves pitted against one [an]other. Factions form and shift. Children’s feelings about each parent can swing to extremes, from times of hating the abuser to periods of idealizing them and blaming the victim for the fighting. The abused partner struggles to keep their relationships with their children strong in the face of the wedges driven in by the abuser, and siblings find ways to support one antoher and offer protection. These wild cross-currents make family life turbulent.”

Abusiveness tends to effect an abuser’s parenting choices for many reasons (keep in mind that at the core of an batterers abusive behavior is the desire for power and control). For one, each important decision that parents make has an impact on everyone in the family. Complex decisions regarding the children will effect the schedules of both parents, and all children in the house. An abuser will likely continue their tendency to consider their own judgment superior to their partner’s and to be selfishly focused on how any changes will effect them, rather than on what works best for the family as a whole. Another way that abusive mentality will apply to parenting is that an abuser has a mentality of ownership over their partner, and they see their partner as a personal possession. This mentality of ownership is likely to extend to their children as well. Further, it is nearly impossible for an abuser to keep their treatment of the abused partner a complete secret from the children in the way that they can keep it from other people; the abuser instead chooses to hook the children into the patterns and dynamics of the abuse, manipulating their perception and trying to win their loyalty. And finally, chidren can be a very effective weapon to use against the victim. Many abusers sense that they can gain more power by using the children against their partners than by any method other than the most overtly terrorizing assaults or threats.

The abuser who is most likely to hit children is the one who is quite physically assaultive to the abused partner. A battering partner is seven times more likely then a nonbattering partner to physically abuse children, and the risk increases with the frequency of the violence toward the abused parent. Some abusers do hit the children but not their partner; these people tend to be a) particularly harsh and authoritarian parents, b) controlling and dictatorial partners, and c) someone who was physically abused by their own parents while they were growing up. Outright sexual abuse of children appears to be fairly low, however, there are often concerns about subtler kinds of boundary violations and other sexually inappropriate behaviors towards children. Boys seem to be at risk when they are very young, while the vulnerability of girls remains steady and may even increase during adolescence (with a male abuser). However, when abusers *do* abuse the children directly, it may not be as blatantly obvious as physically beating the children. As the power and control wheel about abusive relationships showed, there are many different ways that abuse can be perpetrated. There is a similar wheel regarding child abuse.

Name-calling, belittling, attacking their self-confidence, humiliating them in front of other people, shaming boys with regard to their masculinity, and insulting– or inappropriately complimenting– girls on the basis of their physical development and appearance are all common forms of psychological abuse perpetrated towards children by abusive parents. They tend to hurt their children’s feelings further by failing to show up for important events, not following through on outings, or by showing no interest.

The next post in this series will continue looking at how domestic violence impacts children, by examining the effects that children suffer from exposure to domestic violence and abuse.

Photo sources.
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  1. Sa
    Posted October 28, 2009 at 2:55 am | Permalink

    This breaks my heart so completely. It also helps to understand why abused children grow up to victimize other children, sometimes their own-how could they understand what love truly entails? Is there a way to reeducate abused children so they can identify the manipulation and lies their abuser used on them?

  2. Another Suburban Mom
    Posted October 28, 2009 at 5:27 am | Permalink

    I have to echo Sa's comment. It is bad enough for this to happen to an adult, but the thought that the children see, hear and feel this is miserable.

  3. Eve
    Posted October 28, 2009 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    I recognized a lot of my childhood in that wheel at the bottom of the page. What you're writing is very important. Thank you.

  4. massagemama
    Posted October 28, 2009 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Britni, I work with these folks daily and appreciate you spreading the word.

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