Module 2: Childhood Exposure to Intimate Partner Violence

Module Purpose

The purpose of this module is to:

  • Understand the impact of exposure to intimate partner violence on children and youth and their development.
  • Examine experiences of children and youth living in a home with intimate partner violence.
  • Understand how we can meaningfully respond to, engage with, and support children and youth who have lived or are living in a home with intimate partner violence.
  • Locate resources for additional information and support.

Childhood Exposure to Intimate Partner Violence

The following statistics are from the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence for children ages 0-17, unless otherwise indicated (1):

In 2014:

  • Almost 25% had witnessed violence in the family or community in the past year.

  • About 8% witnessed a family assault and almost 6% witnessed a parent assault another parent.

  • 32% of youth (14-17 yrs) witnessed a family assault and 25% witnessed a parent assault another parent in their lifetime.  

Children/youth who are exposed to intimate partner violence may be at higher risk for emotional and behavioral challenges, including anxiety, depression, issues surrounding school performance, low self-esteem, nightmares, and physical health complaints (2).

Children and youth are impacted by intimate partner violence, not just as something they see or hear, but actually something they live and experience. Children may be used as a tool or pawn in the abuse. In addition, children can also be victims of abuse themselves.

It's important to address trauma early in a child's life because:

  • Patterns of trauma aren’t as established.
  • It’s easier to address and mitigate challenging behaviors that resulted from the trauma.
  • Establishing positive coping mechanisms early in a child’s development helps them deal with stress in a healthy way throughout the rest of their life.

Sources

  1. Finkelhor, David, and Turner, Heather. National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence III, 1997-2014 [United States]. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], 2016-09-29. https://doi.org/10.3886/ICPSR36523.v1
  2. Vuong, Silva, and Marchionna (2009). Children Exposed to Violence: Views From the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. National Criminal Justice Reference Series. Accessed online on April 10, 2018 from https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=254205
 

Lived Experience: Amanda Carlson

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Read Amanda's Story

My name is Amanda Carlson, I am 12 and in 7th grade at Central Middle School. I can’t remember a time when my dad and mom weren't fighting. Sometimes my dad will throw things at the wall. They think that we don’t know about it, because most of the time it happens when we’re in another room, but we always know. I knew from when I was little, and so did my brother Brian.

I love my dad and my mom, but I really wish that dad could just move out. He has, for a few weeks, before, but then he came back. He always does come back. I have friends whose parents are divorced, and it’s not such a big deal. But mom and dad always talk about keeping the “family together.” I think they love both of us, but I think they would just be happier apart. But I’m scared to say anything – to them, or to my teachers, or even my friends. I worry they’ll take me away from my mom, really. She’s messed some stuff up in the past and she needs me. You see stuff in the papers and on TV about kids being taken away from their parents and that could be us. I couldn’t let that happen, so I have to keep my mouth shut.

 

Potential Impact of Living with Violence

Below we are describing the potential impact of living in a home with intimate partner violence. At the same time, it is important to recognize that not all children will experience these issues. With support and resources it is possible to reduce harm and its impact.

Children are affected in a range of ways and not all children are affected equally. What makes a difference?

  • The child’s age and development stage
  • Presence of other risk factors such as poverty, substance abuse, or mental health issues
  • Other supports in the extended family or environment
  • Severity, proximity, duration, and frequency of the abuse
  • The child’s role in the family
  • Characteristics of the child
  • Protective factors that promote resilience

Prenatal

  • Miscarriage rate is higher
  • Less access to prenatal care
  • Health risks to mother and unborn child

Infants and toddlers

  • Developmental delays
  • Propensity to illness, irritability, and sleep problems
  • Potential disruption of attachment and trust
  • Excessive separation anxiety
  • Fear of being alone
  • Regressive behavior

School-age children

  • Attribute the abuse to something they have done
  • Learn strong gender roles associated with abuse, violence, and victimization
  • Anger, aggression, depression, fear, withdrawal, self-destructiveness
  • Challenges in school and academic performance
  • Perfectionist behavior, irrational fear of failure, perceive punishment as love
  • Headaches, stomachaches, sleep disturbances, bed-wetting
  • Excessive clinging

Adolescents

  • Poor social skills
  • Low self-esteem
  • Drug and alcohol use/abuse
  • Running away from home, missing or dropping out of school
  • Challenges with academic performance or the need to be perfect in school
  • Suicidal behavior
  • Criminal behavior
  • Dating abuse
  • Early and risky sexual activity, pregnancy, or early marriage

How abuse might be observed

Children may act fearful of a particular parent and be overly compliant with that parent. One parent might actively try to limit the time the child spends with the other parent, and there may be fear concerning parental contact. People who abuse may talk in a condescending way about the partner, often in front of the child. In addition, both partners may appear detached or emotionally unavailable to their children. Children may respond to the abuse by exhibiting either withdrawal or aggression.

     

    Lived Experience: Brian Carlson

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    Read Brian's Story

    My name is Brian and I am 8. I love Legos and I really like playing baseball. One of my favorite things about baseball is when my dad is the assistant coach. He’s a really good coach and he makes all my friends laugh, and also the other dads. He also makes us play better. He knows a lot about baseball, even the big leagues on tv.

    Sometimes my dad gets mad at my mom – and sometimes he says mean things to her. One time I saw him kick her. She was also saying some mean things, I think, and she’s smaller, so it was hard for her to kick him back. But she knows that she shouldn’t say those things. I think she makes him angry on purpose. She doesn’t listen to him as much as she should, and that makes him mad. It’s really important that wives should listen to their husbands. But when he kicked her, it made me scared. I wanted her to stop yelling so he would stop kicking her.

    But my dad is really awesome too. He just gets angry. Like at school, when I get angry, my teacher makes me take a time-out, or sends me to Principal Gates to see if we can talk stuff out. I think grownups just need more time-outs. That’s what my mom and dad need. But I love my family. We are happy a lot of the time. And my dad just got us a puppy, and he says when he comes back he’ll get me a new baseball glove. My dad is pretty cool. And so is my mom.

     

    What Children and Youth Need

    As a caring adult we can explore helpful, supportive ways to work with all ages of children that support their healing process and contribute to their resilience. Young people who have been exposed to intimate partner violence need adults around them who can build emotional and physical safety. Thoughtful interventions grounded in an understanding of exposure to intimate partner violence are essential.

    It is important that young people are listened to without judgment. Children who have been a part of a family with abuse may also feel they are responsible for the abuse or violence in their homes. It is critical that they receive the message that abuse is not their fault. It is important that children are supported and understand that is okay to have whatever feelings they are having.

    Caution: It is important that we not make assumptions about what an individual child or youth needs. Find out: We can talk with the child or youth and their parents. What we can do is relay messages of support – messages such as:

    • You’re not alone
    • Abuse is never okay
    • The abuse is not your fault
    • The abuse is not the fault of your parent who is being abused
    • It is okay to love both of your parents

    Click here for a Creating Trauma-Informed Services Tipsheet: Tips for Supporting Children and Youth Exposed to Domestic Violence: What You Might See and What You Can Do (1)

    Sources:

    1. National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health (2012). Adapted from the Domestic Violence and Mental Health Policy Initiative’s 2008 Children Exposed to Domestic Violence:  A Curriculum for DV Advocates (written by Patricia Van Horn, JD, PhD). Chicago, IL: DVMHPI. 
     

    Lived Experience: Anna Choi

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    Read Anna's Story

    My name is Anna Choi and I am 6 years old. I am Korean American. That means that while I was born here in America, my family is from Korea, and so I’m lucky sometimes because I get to be both things.

    I am in first grade and my teacher is Mrs. Edwards.  She’s really nice and I think she likes me a lot. She listens to me when I want to tell her stuff about friends or my outfits.  I sometimes wish she was my grandma. My grandma is really bossy sometimes, especially with my mom.

    Before we moved out, my mom always had to listen to what my grandma says – that’s part of being Korean. So when my Dad yells or my grandma yells, we all have to listen. If I was a better listener my dad wouldn’t be so mad all the time – I know that’s true. So I try to be really good, at school and at home.

    My dad is a really important scientist, and I know he has a lot of people at work who listen to him and think he is really great. When he comes home he needs us to be quiet, and he needs my mom to have dinner ready for him. My job used to be to help my mom cook and put the newspaper by his chair. I tried really hard to do it just right, but he still would yell. I guess I got it wrong sometimes, so we had to move into a different house. My mom is sad now sometimes, but then she also seems happy. I wish I could make her feel really happy all the time.

     

    Supporting Children

    If you suspect a child or youth is exposed to intimate partner violence, one thing you can do is connect with your local domestic violence service provider to inquire about support and resources. In addition, we can all make a difference in the lives of the children and youth that we work with. Whether we are in a classroom, social service setting, medical setting, or congregation, we can all play an important role to support children, youth, and families experiencing intimate partner violence.

    Strategies for working with children

    There are some basic strategies which are helpful when working with children who have been exposed to intimate partner violence. We can work to ensure that the environment feels safe and supportive for children to talk about their experiences. If we are providing services, it is helpful to allow children time to become familiar with the services provided and the staff who will work with them. Ongoing stability and predictability for children increases their trust and their belief in the safety of their surroundings, providing an environment in which healing can occur. Here are some ways we can offer safety, stability and predictability:

    • Help them to know what to expect and plan with them what happens next.
    • Provide guidance for expectations around behavior.
    • Be respectful of a child’s personal and physical space.
    • Be a good role model for honoring boundaries. For some children, trust has been broken repeatedly and boundaries are often blurred.

    It is important to present information and interact with children in ways that are understandable and appropriate considering their developmental stage, age, experiences, and what they need. Children communicate in many ways, not just with words but through actions and play.  It’s important to take the time to listen and to recognize nonverbal cues. Be prepared, when we listen, we may hear stories that are upsetting. At the same time, it is important to hear and validate children’s realities about their experiences.

    Click here to access a useful tool to better understand how to support children exposed to intimate partner violence (1).

    Sources

    1. Alison Cunningham & Linda Baker (2007) little eyes, little ears how violence against a mother shapes children as they grow. The Centre for Children and Families in the Justice System

     

    Lived Experience: Nelson Choi

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    Read Nelson's Story

    My name is Nelson and I am 3. I don’t like it when my mommy goes away and leaves me at my school. Sometimes she has to go away and it makes me so sad and scared. But I don’t like to cry.

    Before we moved to the new house, when I would cry, my daddy would get mad at me and yell at me. Big boys don’t cry.

    I’m glad I have a big sister. She’s a good sister. Sometimes when I’m sad she brings me into her room and makes me feel better with her stuffed animals. She puts on a puppet show for me. I like puppet shows.

     

    Supporting Adolescents

    The time of adolescence is one of profound and dramatic physiological changes. A critical question that young people may be asking themselves is, “Who am I?” Key aspects of this developmental stage include (1):

    • An increased sense of self and autonomy from family
    • Physical and mood changes brought on by puberty
    • Increased peer group influence and desire for acceptance
    • Possible onset of dating, raising issues of sexuality, intimacy, and the need for relationship skills

    Adolescence presents a developmental opportunity when the brain goes through significant remodeling. Adolescents need healthy and caring adults in their lives to provide a supportive enriched environment that optimizes this important window of opportunity. Click here to access a handout on the Amazing Adolescent Brain (2).

    Being an adolescent can be difficult. But for adolescents who live in a house with intimate partner violence, this time of life can feel especially overwhelming and challenging. In addition, relationships within an adolescents’ family may be strained to a breaking point. During this important developmental period, adolescents living in homes with intimate partner violence may not be getting the stability and guidance they need (3). 

    Children and youth living with intimate partner violence may work to keep their home life a secret. This may present a unique challenge for young people in adolescence trying to fit in with their peers when their friends ask questions like, “Why wasn’t your dad at your baseball game?” “Is your mom coming to the school play today?” “Why don’t we ever hang out at your house?” They may feel too embarrassed to answer truthfully to these questions.

    Young people may also find it hard to learn to trust in their relationships or may end up repeating patterns of abusive behavior, either as a person abusing or being abused in an intimate partner relationship.

    Click here to learn more about the potential impact of violence on adolescents.

    What to pay attention to

    • They may feel caught in-between the abuse.
    • They may find it confusing to understand the dynamics of abuse in their home.
    • Some may want to tell their parents how they feel about what is happening.
    • They may act out with harmful behavior.
    • They may also withdraw or internalize the impact of the abuse that is happening.

    What youth need

    • Find ways to connect with them.
    • Acknowledge how they are feeling about the situation.
    • Find out how they feel. Ask open-ended questions beginning with, “What do you think about……?”
    • Be willing to listen.

    Keep in mind that adolescents may experience or select coping strategies and responses that may not be seen as healthy or very effective, but can also be a source of resilience and search for health. We will explore this in the next module on resilience and thriving.

    Visit Multiplying Connections to access more training and tools about the impact of exposure to violence and working with adolescents (4). 

    Sources

    1. Cunningham, Alison & Baker, Linda. (2011) The Adolescent’s Experience of Intimate Partner Violence and Implications for Intervention. in Graham-Bermann, Sandra & Levendosky, Alytia (Editors) How Intimate Partner Violence Affects Children. 
    2. Chamberlain, Linda. The Amazing Adolescent Brain: What Every Educator, Youth Serving Professional, and Health Care Provider Needs to Know. 
    3. Goldenblatt, H. (2003). Strategies of coping among adolescents experiencing interparental violence. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 18, 532-552. 
    4. Multiplying Connections - http://www.multiplyingconnections.org/become-trauma-informed/amazing-brain-series 
     

    Lived Experience: Kimmy Johnson

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    Read Kimmy's Story

    My name is Kimmy and I am 15 years old.  I am in 10th grade, and I really like math, even though sometimes my friends and boyfriend think that’s weird.  But I do … I love math and l love how everything fits together just right when you’re doing an equation. I wish my life worked like that. I wish I could just solve for X in my live and have everything figured out.

    My mom kicked out my dad after he tried to burn the house down around us. I don’t care what he said, that is what he did. I’m proud of my mom. But I hear her crying at night, and it makes me sad. I wish I could tell her she did the right thing. But she’s always putting on a brave face, and trying to be strong, and I feel like she’s afraid to tell us the truth. But the fact is, of course, I know the truth. My brother Mike and I know everything already. We know what’s going on – we know why Dad moved out, and why Mom cries all the time.

    But now I feel like I can’t tell her anything, because it will upset her. Sometimes I feel like my mom is trying so hard to make everything perfect that she doesn’t want to hear when things aren’t – even if they don’t have to do with Dad.  But it is easier now that Dad is gone – I really don’t mind meeting him for dinner every now and again with Aunt Kali, but I don’t want to live with him anymore.

    I mean I love him and all – is that okay?  To love him even though he hit my mom?  Well, anyway, I might love him but I never want to live with him again – never again.

     

    Lived Experience: Mike Johnson

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    Read Mike's Story

    My name is Mike Johnson and I am 16 years old. I am a junior in high school. I run track, and I like to write… yeah, like my dad does. I swear, though, that’s the only way I’m like my dad. My dad is a jerk. He tried to kill me and my sister and my mom – my sister Kimmy and I both know it’s true. Even when mom tells us it may have been an accident, I say, “Well, how the heck did the curtains get on fire?” But we’re out of there, and if I never see Dad again it will be too soon.

    I’m glad I have my sprinting, and all the track meets. My times haven’t been as good since the fire, but I’m getting back to it. But sometimes, though, I just want to let it all out and hit something or punch something, or just yell if nothing else – really loud. I got my license a few months ago, and my dad gave me his old Toyota when I did, and sometimes I turn up the music really loud and drive and just scream at the top of my lungs. But I would never hit anyone ever. I don’t know how my dad thinks violence like that is okay.

    Okay, one more thing, but you can’t say anything. Sometimes, lately, I’ve been meeting up with my pal Jordan. He’s got a brother who’s a lot older, and his brother can buy us beer. We don’t drink that much, just a little now and again – we take the Toyota out to Green Parkway out on the edge of town and drink one or two beers. Man, it helps. Jordan has a rough time at home too; his mom is away in Afghanistan and his dad works all the time. So we go out and shoot the breeze and complain about our folks. It helps, the beer. But I only do it every now and then. You don’t need to worry about me.

     

    Critical Thinking

    This section is intended to allow us to integrate the training content into the lived experiences of our families. Each of our critical thinking questions addresses one or more of the people in the Carlson, Choi, or Johnson families, and examines an aspect of their lives.

    Take time to think about each of these questions, and think about responses from multiple points of view. It may be helpful to go back and review sections of the curriculum, re-read the experiences of each family member, and engage in dialogue with community partners and co-workers.

    • If you were Amanda’s teacher, what signs do you think you might see to show that she is living in a home with intimate partner violence?
    • What could you do if you were Amanda’s teacher and you knew about the violence she was living with?
    • Why would Brian think his mom caused the violence by not listening to his dad?
    • Why do you think Nelson has a hard time leaving his mom?
    • What could you do to make sure Nelson feels safe in a new situation?
    • Why does Anna think the violence is her own fault?
    • What resources does Mike have to help him through this hard time?