“They’re only children, they don’t understand” or, “They weren’t hit” is often said by parents, carers and members of the community. But research shows that the impact of domestic violence on children is real and can be detrimental to their growth and development. The younger the child, the more impact they absorb. Children do not need to be ‘hit’ or ‘yelled at’ to experience the impacts.
Children are like sponges. When the water starts running, the sponge absorbs its environment. When children are exposed to violence and trauma, their brains absorb a view of the world that is not particularly positive. This changes their perspective on the way they view others and the world around them.
For children to reach their full potential, their environment should be calm and nurturing. This is almost non-existent for children who are exposed to domestic violence. Seeing their mum experiencing domestic violence first hand, whether it is physical, emotional, or verbal abuse, is enough to cause a rock in the boat.
Children respond in varied ways to abuse in the home. Some hide in their rooms to escape the violence. If they have siblings they may work together to protect each other, trying to keep away from the hitting, screaming and objects being thrown around the place. Some get physically in between their parents. All of them experience a high rise in cortisol levels.
Cortisol is the stress hormone in the body. It is better known as the ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response to a stressful situation. If exposed to it on a regular basis, it can be extremely detrimental to a child’s developing brain.
“Abuse destroys a child’s view of the world as a safe and predictable place.” Alison Cunningham & Linda Baker
While most children during childhood are fostering their physical, social and psychological development, children who are exposed to domestic violence are unconsciously on alert. Being on alert means feeling the tension, fear and unpredictability of home life with an abuser. For a young child, this is extremely frightening.
However, there is hope. Neena McConnico who is the director of the Child Witness to Violence Project says, ‘The brain is very malleable… The brain is constantly developing and when we’re able to support kids we’re able to help them more than people realize.”
When children have safe, nurturing, non-violent relationships with their significant others, they can overcome their past. Children exposed to domestic violence are constantly scanning for potential danger, so it is crucial for their relationships and environments to be stable. This includes children knowing what to expect during day-to-day activities as it allows them to feel grounded and safe. This stability can assist the restructure of their brain and reduce their cortisol levels. It is also important to give children time to talk and ask questions in a child-led, controlled environment, to support with the recovery of trauma.
There’s always hope.
Written by Sophie, Family Worker at Bonnie’s