Martorella: Consider the kids

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Having worked with domestic violence victims and offenders for over a decade, I feel compelled to use this space to address this concern each year. It is critical that we remain educated about the behaviors that constitute domestic abuse, the effects they have on ourselves, our partners, and our children, and resources for help.

Domestic abuse is not just physical violence. The definition includes psychological abuse, threatening, intimidating, isolating, withholding children/affection/support, financial abuse, stalking, and other ways of misusing power to exert control over another’s thoughts and behaviors.

Domestic abuse is not just perpetrated by men against women. This is a problem that affects every community regardless of age, gender, race, socioeconomic status, religion, and nationality. The perpetrators are both male and female. Statistics indicate that one in three women and one in four men have been physically assaulted by an intimate partner. Violence perpetrated by men does tend to result in more severe injuries, and men are more likely to use lethal weapons. One in seven women has been injured by an intimate partner, versus one in 25 men. One in three female murder victims were killed by an intimate partner, versus one in 20 male murder victims.  

All statistics are based on reported assaults of course, which are estimated to total only around 30% of all incidents. It is possible that men are even less likely to report than women due to the societal embarrassment and shame associated with being victimized by a woman.

In my current job, I work with families across Fairfield County that are involved with the state Department of Children and Families (aka child protection services) because of intimate partner violence within their homes. On average, one in 15 children are exposed to domestic violence annually, with 90% considered direct witnesses to this violence. Note that children do not have to be injured themselves to be considered victims. Exposure to domestic violence, directly or indirectly, can be enough to raise concerns of child endangerment and neglect.

Many of our clients say they never fight in front of the children, the children are in other rooms, asleep or unaware. But when we talk to the children, we find they are very much aware of the physical and verbal abuse, which they often hear from their bedrooms when their parents think they are asleep. In the worst cases, they may run into a room to protect a parent and find themselves caught in the crossfire. They are very much aware of the psychological abuse that is conveyed in the daily interactions between their parents, verbal and nonverbal communication that is occurring in full view of those who are carefully watching. And our children are always carefully watching and listening. (If you don’t think so, swear under your breath when you are driving your tween or talk about them when they are not in the room and see how quickly they comment. Or really listen to your baby or toddlers expressions and consider how often you hear yourself.)

Exposure to violence and abuse can affect children from infancy, even during pregnancy. Younger children may show their distress in the short-term through changes in sleeping or eating patterns, withdrawing, excessive crying, difficulties separating, regression in developmental skills (bed-wetting, muteness), and increased anxiety or fears. Older children may display increased aggression, difficulty concentrating, difficulties in school or with peers, depression, and risky behaviors. Furthermore, the trauma often has long-term consequences in their lives and relationships.

Sometimes we rationalize our abusive relationships using our own childhoods as models of “normal” behavior. Maybe in past generations, or within specific cultures, physical discipline was accepted, along with more dominant/subservient gender roles. Maybe it was normal to hear your parents, or the neighbors, fighting, but nobody would ever call the police because it was “not their business”. This just is not true anymore. Laws and expectations have changed to improve the health of our children and our communities.

We may say, “My parents fought and I was fine” or “Kids are resilient, they’ll forget about this tomorrow.” But then we admit that we did not forget about it. In fact, we likely learned our own relationship skills from watching our parents. In my experience, educating parents who were exposed to domestic abuse as children about the cycle of abuse that they are perpetuating with their own children is one of the greatest motivators for change.

If you notice signs of abuse within your own relationship or that of someone you care about, seek help. If someone is in crisis and needs to establish safety immediately, contact Domestic Violence Crisis Center of Stamford/Norwalk at 203-588-9100 or 203-853-0418 or Greenwich YWCA Domestic Abuse Services at 203-622-0003. For confidential assistance, statistics, and other information, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or visit the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence at ncadv.org. There are many counseling services across the area that can provide individual, couple, or family counseling before the situation escalates as well.

We all have a right to feel safe and secure in our homes and relationships, especially our children. Domestic abuse is never acceptable and never deserved.

 

Rebecca Martorella, LMFT, welcomes ideas and comments and can be reached at [email protected]