The cover of the edition on domestic violence. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Children learn to be what they see and hear on a regular basis, especially at very young ages. To grow up healthy and learn good coping skills, children need to be in a safe nurturing environment with healthy, non-violent caregivers. Children believe that what they see at home is “normal.” If the home is safe and loving and has good boundaries, that becomes the norm. If violence is how people in the home solve problems, that becomes the model for how things “should be done.” Children that grow up in violent homes (3.3 million per year in the US) are strongly impacted by the violence. Those that become healthy, non-violent adults have had at least one person give them a “safe harbor” and help them cope with the trauma of living with violence. Children that grow up in violent homes at a young age, who become violent adults have not had someone to give them sufficient support, nurturing, guidance, boundaries, and a adequately healthy environment for them to overcome their experiences.
DV can be physical, emotional, sexual, verbal, or financial, or can involve restricting contact of family members with people outside of the home. It always involves secrecy and control issues. The secrecy keeps domestic violence alive. Domestic violence is traumatic to the children that witness it. Any significant trauma, such as DV, in the developmental years (0 – 5) can interfere with brain and skill development of the child. Self-soothing, problem solving, communication, cognition, and interpersonal skills can all be negatively impacted, while a safe environment supports the learning of skills that helps them cope with the problems they will inevitably face in the world.
A home with domestic violence is not a safe, nurturing environment. Additionally, it generally will not stop without the help of an outside agency that has more power than the offender, such as the police and the Courts. Similar to a garden with weeds and no nourishment, the garden will not flourish until the gardener weeds the garden, turns up the soil, and adds nourishment for the plants. A home with domestic violence cannot support healthy growth and development. Someone (the gardener) needs to stop the violence (pull the weeds out of the garden), improve family relationships and problem solving (turn up the soil), and support the healthy growth of all family members (add nourishment). The Court is the weed destroyer and the counselor or social worker is the support system that gives the family the help it needs to become strong and healthy.
There are many examples of domestic violence affecting public figures. Domestic violence in the relationship of Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown is well known. How that has and will continue to affect their daughter, Bobbi Kristina, will depend on how involved other relatives were and are in helping to give her safe haven and an alternative nurturing environment. Another example is Bill Clinton who spent the first four years of his life with his grandparents in a nurturing environment while his mother was in nursing school. His young life was later marred by domestic violence. The nurturing environment in the first four years of life probably gave him the foundation he needed to develop early skills. This, coupled with success in school, helped him cope with the domestic violence in his middle childhood and adolescence. Despite domestic violence during those years, he became president of the United States. However, President Clinton’s half-brother, Roger, born in 1956 when President Clinton was 10 years old, would have been exposed to domestic violence at a younger age than the age of the President during exposure and he reportedly has had a checkered past. Research supports exposure to DV at a very young age interferes with the development of basic coping skills. Therefore, it appears that the domestic violence in the Clinton household may have affected the two brothers differently.
Several programs have promise in helping families torn by domestic violence. The Healthy Families Program supports positive family relationships, healthy child development, and improved problem solving from the time the mother is pregnant until the child is five years old. Programs work to engage fathers in the raising of their children. It is a wellness oriented program that gives support, rather than finding fault. Research indicates the program has a good track record for positive family outcomes. Head Start with family involvement is also a program known for supporting families and positive outcomes. There is a U.S. National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 and TTY 1-800-787-3224, as well.
If you or your children are being harmed by domestic violence, you can:
• Seek counseling
• Call the police when you or your children have been hurt
• Leave your home and go to a DV shelter
• Get the support of friends and family
• Educate yourself about the cycle of violence and how it harms you and your children
• Make a safety plan
If your family is experiencing domestic violence, please know that it is harming your children and that there is help for you and your children, but you must reach for it and do so carefully with the support of others.
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–Dr. Kathy Seifert