How do you feel after living through a car wreck?
My guess is, based on my own experiences, that you feel a little jittery, nervous and fearful once you return to driving. What would happen to your feelings, though, if you lived through a car wreck once weekly for several years? How would you feel then? Think about it for a moment. The random experience of once-weekly or even once-monthly violence would completely shake your sense of safety, meaning and purpose in the world.
Thankfully, chronic car wrecks don’t seem to happen that often. But for the one in four American women who have experienced severe violence from an intimate partner, the real danger isn’t on the road but in the home. The paralyzing fear, numbness and purposelessness of domestic violence is very real — for both the women who experience it and the children who see it.
In fact, children respond to witnessing domestic violence as though they experienced the violence themselves. As Dr. Nekeshia Hammond explains, “Children feel a variety of emotions when they observe violence in the home, including shock, fear, anxiety, depression, anger and even violent rage.” It’s as though the violence is happening to their own little bodies. When kids watch domestic violence, their brains begin to fire abnormally, sending a flood of stress hormones into the body so they can minimize their threat. When they watch chronic violence — much like experiencing chronic car wrecks — their brains begin to interpret everyday stressors as major threats, which can permanently change the pathways of a child’s brain.
In all the important discussions about domestic violence and women, we sometimes forget to talk about the most vulnerable victims. The consequences of domestic violence on children, though, extend into their entire lives. “When a child witnesses domestic violence, he or she is at risk for developing long-term problems,” explains Hammond. “They are more at risk for trouble at school, mental health disorders and anger management problems. Research also suggests that they’re at greater risk of intimate partner violence in their teen and adult years.”
Of course, this knowledge about kids and domestic violence may be entirely overwhelming. If you’re worried about the impact of domestic violence on your kids, it’s likely because you’re surviving a violent relationship yourself. “Many times, parents who are in domestic violence relationships do not realize the impact it has on their children,” says SheKnows expert and school psychologist Daniella Florin. Use your new knowledge as motivation to call a local domestic violence shelter, which will offer services to both you and your children.