Do you know someone who is (or have you been) the victim of domestic violence in some form (i.e., as a child, a parent, a spouse, etc)? Do you remember what happened during the abuse? Domestic violence is more prevalent than most people believe. In fact, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that about 20 people, per minute, are being physically abused in their home by an intimate partner or spouse. Sadly, domestic violence is correlated with a higher prevalence of depression and suicidal ideations. As a therapist, my experience has been that domestic violence not only affects the adult in the home but also the child (or children) who witness the abuse in some way. A child who witnesses domestic violence is vicariously experiencing the abuse (i.e., experiencing the abuse without being directly influenced by it). Rarely does anyone walk away from domestic violence unscathed.
This article will discuss trauma but focus specifically on domestic violence while highlighting the ways domestic violence alters ones life.
It wasn’t until I began engaging in multiple classes, seminars, webinars, continuing education programs, and certification programs on trauma that I learned just how prevalent domestic violence was. I always knew, as a therapist, that it existed. But I failed to realize that I could actually be living in a neighborhood, walking past, or interacting with a victim.
As a result, I recognize that there are multiple ways domestic violence affects a family but the most important changes include:
- The brain: Trauma affects the brain in various ways including levels of cortisol (i.e., a stress hormone that is secreted from a pea-sized gland in your brain). The pituitary gland is located in the middle of your brain and is “reactionary” to stress. When your brain “senses” stress or is in fight or flight mode, the pituitary gland releases the stress hormone cortisol which results in a variety of changes throughout the body. Your body is preparing itself to fight or flee from the threat or danger. When the threat of danger is gone, the fight or flight system is “turned off.” For children, adolescents, and adults who have experienced high levels of stress over a long period of time (such as is the case in families of domestic violence), the body’s fight or flight response stays on all of the time, especially if the brain and body is hyper-vigilant to danger or threat. The repeated release of cortisol and a host of other hormones can result in permanent brain changes. Young children, from infancy to toddler age, can exhibit delayed developmental milestones. Children and adolescents may begin to show antisocial tendencies such as oppositional behavior, delinquency, substance abuse, unprotected sex, and other similar behaviors. Adults may also show similar behaviors in addition to poor interpersonal relationships, poor boundaries, challenges with maintaining employment, and severe mental health disorders.
- Social environment: Individuals and families who are victims of domestic violence tend to isolate themselves from their family, friends, and society in general. It is as if the victim(s) feel so beat down by the abuser that they cannot enjoy life anyone, feel confident, or self-assured. Others often retreat into a world of embarrassment, guilt, fear, and emotional imprisonment. Children and adolescents who witness repeated domestic violence (i.e., vicarious trauma) may begin to seclude themselves from their friends and peers including other adults like teachers. For many of the clients I have worked with in the past who were victims of domestic violence, their most dreaded reality was to be confronted by neighbors or others in society who may have heard the violence occurring or who may witness physical signs of abuse such as bruises.
- Emotions/Affective regulation: Victims of domestic violence are not only suffering from guilt, low self-esteem, and embarrassment but also fear, uncertainty, and labile emotions. Most abusers require not only anger management classes but psychiatric treatment and counseling. As a result of untreated mental health conditions or behavioral problems, the abuser is often switchable in moods and may exhibit various emotions throughout the day, week, months, or even years. This is why domestic violence is so tricky for victims. It is difficult to determine what mood the abuser may be in from one minute to the next. Because of this, victims are often emotional themselves and switchable in moods and behavior. Consider how you would be if you constantly changed your thoughts and feelings based on how the abuser was feeling and treating you from one moment to the next.
- Temperament: Trauma can certainly change temperament. A baby who is generally pleasant and calm may become colicky, irritable, and reactive if he or she is in an environment of constant trauma. For example, consider how an infant would feel if everything in its environment is peaceful until he/she hears mother crying and screaming while the father curses at her, yells at her, and physically assaults her. The infant will most likely become emotionally unstable due to the changes in its environment. If a woman is pregnant, the stress hormone (cortisol) including other hormones will be released during a violent event. These hormones can certainly alter physiological processes in a developing fetus.
- Life perspective: Many of my previous young clients (ages 5-11) all exhibited changes in the way they viewed their lives and life in general after the abuse. Whether the abuse was experienced directly or indirectly did not matter. The victims expressed changes in the way they viewed others and their motives, the way they viewed therapists or people of authority, and even the way they saw their parent(s), friends, or extended family. I had a wonderful 6 year old boy some years ago who not only experienced physical abuse at the hands of his father, but overheard the sexual, verbal, and physical abuse of his mother. After about 1 year of engaging him in trauma-informed therapy he said to me “I just don’t trust anyone but you. I don’t even trust my mom because she let the abuse happen to me too.” My heart has never been the same after this confession.
- Ability to learn & grow: If I had to live with trauma every day of my life with little to no help from the outside world, I would most likely lose motivation and energy for life. What’s the point in trying if no matter how hard you try you end up suffering anyhow. Many victims of domestic violence give up on life and don’t see any purpose in trying to develop their abilities, learn, or grow. The future appears grim to youngsters, especially if the adult victim of the abuse stays in the abusive relationship, uses drugs or alcohol, or has no ability or desire to leave the relationship.
- Ability to trust and form positive attachments: As stated above, many victims have trouble trusting others after the abuse. The traumatic experience takes such a biological, emotional, and psychological toll on the victim(s) that building healthy trust and relationships with others may seem impossible. That is why trauma therapy is often suggested to be the only help for victims of domestic abuse.
What has been your experience or the experience of someone close to you? Did you know domestic violence was as traumatizing as discussed above?
As always, I look forward to interacting with you. Post your comments below.
All the best
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. (2016). Statistics. Retrieved online 7/1/2016 from, http://www.ncadv.org/learn/statistics.