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Domestic Violence

Our Oh So Violent Holidays at Home

More time together can also mean more violence

This holiday season, my wish is for each and every family to not just be merry and together, but also violence-free. Sadly, that is not something many families will experience. If a family has a history of violence, then the holidays are only going to make that violence worse. For women and children, the holidays can be especially dangerous. After all, besides family dinners and presents, more time at home brings with it financial strain, excessive drinking and access to knifes and guns. Put all that together and the holidays can turn into an awful story of alcohol abuse, sexual assault and gun violence.

Not quite what we think of when we wish our colleagues “Happy holidays” and leave for an extended break.

Unfortunately, there is simply no getting around the fact that if you have a gun in your home the most likely victim of that firearm is a family member. If there is a pattern of domestic violence in the home, and the violence is more severe, then it will be women who are the most likely victims of a lethal attack. Sad but true, the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia reminds us that when people report “firearm access” they are at least twice as likely to be the victim of a homicide and three times as likely to die of suicide than people without access to a gun. And while men and women can both be victims of domestic violence, women are more likely to be murdered by their spouse, or an ex-spouse, than by anyone else.

Whatever your stance on gun control, there is no getting around the fact that guns in people’s homes mean more gun related deaths.

That’s something to think about as we spend time at home with loved ones this holiday season. For many women, children and even men, their homes will be a very dangerous place.

Now, admittedly, that is not exactly the image of the holidays we like. We prefer visions of hot apple cider, lovely wrapped presents, and plenty of quality time with those we love. Unfortunately, I learned years ago that the domestic violence statistics don’t lie. After all, if you’re a child, the most dangerous place (statistically speaking) for you has always been at home. That is where the bulk of violence towards children occurs. It’s where children are most likely to witness violence. It’s where they are most likely to participate in violence, too. Add in cyber harassment, stalking and other forms of intimidation, and the truth is that all that holiday down time spent with family members is likely the most dangerous period of the year for anyone with a history of domestic violence.

Now before you call me the Grinch, let me argue in my own defense that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If we acknowledge these facts and know the dangers, we may just notice what’s going on around us. Are we ignoring signs of family violence in our neighborhood? When the child down the street calls to come over and visit our child, do we tell her, “Oh, it’s family time. You should be with your parents.” Or do we see it for what it could be. A cry for help?

What I Learned About Christmas From Kids in Jail

Years ago, I worked with a very traumatized group of young people in a secure custody facility for young offenders. As the holidays approached, two experiences stand out. Both reminded me of what the holidays are actually like for so many in our community.

The first episode was a request from senior management that I gather together some of the youth and stage a holiday play. I’m pretty sure my supervisors expected a short piece of theater that looked something like Miracle On 34th Street. Instead, I decided to do some Theater of the Oppressed. I asked the residents to write the play based on their own experience of the season. What they created was a story of drunken parents, blackened eyes, smashed presents and the police at the door. It may not have been what management expected, but it was the truth and couldn’t be hidden no matter how many layers of shiny paper we wrapped it in. We were never allowed to show that play to the young people’s parents, but we did invite 150 professionals to the facility who were treated to an emotional afternoon performance. Before their eyes, the “dysfunctional” youth with whom they worked turned from violent perpetrators into the traumatized victims we knew them to be. It took a few weeks to debrief the experience, but every one of those young people felt better for having told their story. As one young women said, “Finally, I got heard.”

I should have known before I began creating that play that I’d get a story of mayhem and violence. After all, for years, my colleagues and I had noticed a depressingly common pattern. The young people who earned the privilege of going home on an escorted absence from the facility for a few hours (or even overnight) frequently sabotaged their visits home. It usually began mid-December. Well-behaved kids suddenly began doing really stupid things. There were more fights. There was more contraband on the units. There was more arguing. Eventually kids had their privileges withdrawn. In front of their peers, a resident who lost permission to return home over the holidays might throw a tantrum but, later, alone in his cell, there was an air of calm. If those young people trusted me, they might let slip that they were just as happy to celebrate the holidays in custody than at home. No yelling. A few really nice gifts (brought in by volunteers). A special meal that would be served hot. All the second helpings a kid could want. And best of all, safety.

These stories should come as no surprise. We’ve known for decades that the children populating our jails are most often those who were made vulnerable through their exposure to violence. Developing brains don’t do well under constant stress.

We Can Prevent Domestic Violence

This holiday season, let’s all be careful. Lock away the guns before the festivities (if their not locked away already). Plan for some time apart if there is even a small risk of a fight breaking out. Be wary around a family member who is drunk constantly.

If these problems aren’t in your home, then think about your neighbors and friends, and their children. Be vigilant. If something doesn’t look right, it may not be. Consider those who are most vulnerable, too. More elderly women than men are likely to experience domestic violence. Economically vulnerable women are more likely to remain in bad relationships. And remember, the child who is most disordered or most withdrawn may be the child with a hidden story to tell.

While we can’t intrude on the privacy of others without cause, we can gently make ourselves available to those in our community if we suspect stress is mounting at home. Keeping families safe is a shared responsibility. Knowing that the holidays can be dangerous is the first step towards a healthier, violence-free family.

More from Michael Ungar Ph.D.
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