Kids Are Collateral Damage As Violence Against Women Surges
Mounting data suggests domestic abuse is acting like an opportunistic infection.
Posted Apr 18, 2020
According to the World Health Organization, violence against women tends to increase during every type of emergency, including epidemics. On March 26th, WHO indicated that reports from China, the UK, the US, and other countries suggested, unsurprisingly, an increase in domestic violence (DV) cases since the COVID-19 outbreak. Days before, a local police officer told me that he had been responding to an increasing number of domestic disturbance calls. On April 2nd, French police reported a nationwide spike of about 30 percent in DV, an increase with presumed parallels around the globe. On April 6th, the New York Times reported, “Mounting data suggests that domestic abuse is acting like an opportunistic infection, flourishing in the conditions created by the pandemic.”
Few reports have made mention of the children around the world living in the confined spaces where intimate partner abuses are taking place.
DV takes many forms, including chronic arguing and yelling, controlling behaviors that restrict access to needed economic and psychosocial resources, intimidation, threats of suicide or murder, threats involving weapons, and serious injuries. There is an undercurrent of power and control, with offenders grasping for in a surrogate the control that is lacking within themselves. Any pattern of behaviors in intimate relationships marked by coercive control can be a signal or foreshadowing of abuses.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported that in homes where violence between partners occurs, there is a 45% to 60% chance of co-occurring child abuse, a rate 15 times higher than the average. Even when they are not physically attacked, children witness 68% to 80% of domestic assaults. These numbers are a sobering reminder of the toll a violent environment takes on kids.
The circumstances of DV leave caregivers unavailable, emotionally and otherwise, and activate in kids a primal fear and a host of other raw, complex, and unresolved emotions.
The psychological aftermath of exposure to domestic violence can include fear of harm or abandonment, excessive worry or sadness, guilt, inability to experience empathy or guilt, habitual lying, low frustration tolerance, emotional distancing, poor judgment, shame, and fear about the future. Although they may be unintended victims, living within a climate of chronic emotional volatility and witnessing acute incidents of aggression has a way of searing a neurophysiological muddle—painful and isolating emotions existing alongside ongoing and frequently unmet needs for affection and attachment.
Parents who are themselves batterers are more irritable, less involved in child rearing, more likely to use severe and erratic physical punishment, and less able to distinguish their children’s needs from their own. Both parents, regardless of culpability, risk poor emotional attunement with their children and, consequently, a decreased capacity to recognize stress and danger—protective factors which might increase a child’s resiliency.
A growing body of literature has revealed that children who have been exposed to domestic violence are more likely than their peers to experience a wide range of difficulties, from anger and oppositional behavior, to fear, low self-worth and withdrawal, to poor sibling, peer, and social relationships. Studies have found evidence of much higher rates of pro-violence attitudes, animal abuse, bullying, assault, property destruction, and substance abuse.
In so many cases, it is difficult for those outside of these family systems to know with sufficient clarity what is going on, and it is also often difficult to know how best to intervene. And unfortunately, the reality is that in many cases, meaningful intervention occurs only after a child has endured direct and continued exposure to domestic violence.
As a society, over time, we have an opportunity and responsibility to inject resiliency through academic, emotional, and social support. Yet we must also grapple with whether there are ways we might offer more effective and more immediate intervention—for adult and child victims alike.
World Health Organization (2020, March 26). COVID-19 and violence against women: What the health sector/system can do. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/publications/emergencies/COVID-19-VAW-full-text.pdf
Taub, A. (2020, April 6). A new Covid-19 crisis: Domestic abuse rises worldwide. New York, NY: The New York Times.
Carlson, B.E. (2000). Children exposed to intimate partner violence: Research findings and implications for intervention. Trauma, Violence, and Abuse, 1 (4), 321-342.
Kilpatrick, K.L., Litt, M., and Williams, L.M. (1997). Post-traumatic stress disorder in child witness to domestic violence. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 67 (4), 639-644.
Brown, B., and Bzostek, S. (2003, August). Violence in the lives of children. Crosscurrents, 1. Bethesda, MD: Child Trends. Retrieved from http://www.childtrends.org/wp-content/uploads/2003/01/2003-15ViolenceChildren.pdf.