Know That There Is Hope
Domestic violence can occur in all relationships. And regardless of the type of relationship it occurs in, the effects are always the same. Domestic violence leads to physical and psychological trauma for the victim. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that one in four women and one in nine men experience some form of domestic violence and that children witness more than half of domestic assaults and have a very high likelihood of experiencing co-occurring child abuse if their parent is being assaulted.
If you or a loved one are trapped in a relationship with an abuser, a primary concern should, and likely will be, the wellbeing of your children.
Impact of Domestic Violence on Children
In the short term, children respond to domestic violence in different ways depending on their age. Young children tend to revert to earlier behaviors such as wetting the bed or sucking their thumbs, they may have difficulty falling asleep or develop a stutter. Older children tend to blame themselves for domestic violence at home. This guilt often leads to problems at school and at home, and damage to their self-esteem. Teens who witness domestic violence are more likely to engage in high-risk behavior and are more likely to break the law and teenage girls are more likely to experience feelings of depression.
Looking at the long-term consequences of domestic violence in children leads to some jarring revelations. Your children will be at a higher risk for mental health conditions than a child who did not witness domestic violence in the home. And children who witness domestic violence are more likely to repeat that behavior in their own relationships. Boys who have witnessed the abuse of their mothers will be 10 times more likely to abuse a female partner as an adult. Girls who witness the abuse of their mothers are 651% more likely to be sexually abused than girls in non-abusive homes.
Facts to Keep in Mind
First, if your child is being exposed to domestic violence, you need to prioritize your child’s wellbeing. This means working to create a support system that they can rely on beyond just yourself, whether it’s neighbors, teachers, sports coaches, or extended family. You should prioritize developing a network of trusted adults that your child can rely on.
Second, when a child witnesses domestic violence, it is very frightening. Your child might blame themselves and feel guilty about what is happening, and your child may not feel safe at home anymore. It's crucial to talk to your child about healthy relationships and address their fears, or they will not feel safe in their home.
Third, you can turn to professional help. A therapist or counselor who is experienced working with children who have witnessed violence and abuse will be able to work with your child and, hopefully, help your child process what is happening at home and the complex issues that arise with witnessing domestic violence. A therapist can help your child learn different methods to cope with the feelings and the self-doubt associated with domestic violence and can also serve as a vital part of a child’s support system.
Finally, you need to consider if legal action is necessary. Staying in an abusive relationship is never best for you or your children. You can either choose to end your relationship, seek a domestic violence restraining order, or do both in that context. An experienced family law professional can assist with these things. Getting a restraining order typically involves filling out paperwork and then appearing in court about a month later to share your story with the judge in hopes of obtaining the desired restraining order. Bear in mind that depending upon the nature of the violence, you can also go into court on an “emergency” basis (referred to as ex parte) and ask the judge for orders immediately, after only one days’ notice. If those orders are granted, they will stay enforced, pending the full hearing on the matter, which will be roughly three weeks later. Every family law courthouse typically has a Family Law Self Help Center where people can seek help filling out these forms if they cannot afford a lawyer to help them. California's domestic violence procedural system is designed to be easy to use and provide quick and easy access to the courts, whether you can afford a lawyer or not.
Seek Safety Immediately
If there is domestic violence in your home, you need to take your children and go. What you should not do is live with an abuser. If you or your children are being victimized, seek help as quickly as possible, whether that means staying with a friend, your family, at a motel, or at a domestic violence support shelter near you.
The best thing you can do is take all the necessary steps to protect your children and yourself from domestic violence. Remember: a child thrives in a stable, loving, and safe environment. Two parents are not required to provide that. Single parents are just as capable of providing this environment as two, especially if that single parent has removed their children from a place of abuse.
Vargas, L. Cataldo, J., & Dickson, S. (2005). Domestic violence and children. In G. R. Walz & R. K. Yep (Eds.), VISTAS: Compelling perspectives on counseling, 2005 (pp.67- 69). Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.