Even youngest children suffer Story by Stephanie Emma Pfeffer • Illustrations by Madeleine Avirov
Rita Ryan remembers seeing her 4-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son kneeling on the floor, praying for her safety. Maybe it the time her husband was shoving a washcloth into her mouth, or bruising her neck so badly that she had to hide the damage beneath a turtleneck to attend a Labor Day picnic. Maybe it was one of the five times his abuse landed her in the emergency room.
Whichever time it was, it wasn't the first or the last. And long before Ryan answered her children's prayers by ending the violent marriage, the little girl and boy suffered from it. Nightmares and stomachaches were regular occurrences. Her daughter grew increasingly needy and her son developed encopresis, a complication of chronic constipation.
"I'm embarrassed to say that I wasn't aware that these symptoms were directly linked to the violence," says Ryan, now a domestic violence women's advocate. "I was trying to help myself and my children survive."
Domestic violence can be physical, psychological, emotional, economic or sexual.
Physical domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence, made up 20 percent of all nonfatal violence against females age 12 and older in 2001, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
While society has become more aware of the implications of domestic violence on families and communities, only in the last few years has the focus turned toward children, especially young children.
"Children will always be affected by being exposed to domestic violence; it's just a matter of whether the memories are conscious," says Mary Pat Keller, family trauma therapist at the Chicago Abused Women Coalition. "Adults may think children didn't see or hear anything because they were sleeping or were in another room, but children are very aware."
In the past, mental health workers and counselors concentrated their efforts on older children who had witnessed domestic violence because it was easy to identify their aggressive behavior. Unfortunately, younger siblings were often overlooked because they didn't exhibit the same dramatic signs of trauma.
"It took us a long time to recognize that kids are extraordinarily sensitive little barometers of their environment," says Barbara Engel, on the board of the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority. "Whether preverbal or not, they are picking up on the tension and climate of households."
Domestic violence may have serious effects even before a child is born. Besides a child in utero possibly sustaining physical injury when the mother is violated, new research suggests that the mother's brain may produce toxic chemicals in response to the stress caused by domestic violence, chemicals which may harm the baby's development.
Once born, a child's formative years-from birth to 3-are especially crucial: "Children really need to be exploring at this age," says Marlita White, director of Chicago Safe Start, a federal and city program aimed at reducing the impact of violence on children under age 5. "The primary work of a child that age is to learn, feel comfortable and receive love and care. Anything that will cause trauma takes them off course."
Preverbal children might express their trauma through behavior or play, says therapist Keller. They may become withdrawn, have little interaction with other children or lose interest in what they used to enjoy. Sometimes they have illnesses that can't be traced to medical causes, like Ryan's son.
Ryan's daughter also dealt with her fear through nonverbal means by clinging to her baby blanket longer than normal. This type of regressive behavior, as well as thumb sucking and baby talk, is caused by the strain of a violent or chaotic situation, Keller says. A child who has already been potty-trained may even start wetting the bed again.
"The lack of consistency and predictability in a violent home doesn't provide the structure a child needs to retain new behaviors," says Dora Lader, director of satellite services at the Chicago Abused Women Coalition. "A child cannot focus."
To exert control in an environment with few boundaries, some children may use self-soothing mechanisms such as overeating, undereating, being overly sleepy or sleeping very little, adds Keller.
Older children may become aggressive, harming animals, themselves or others through biting, kicking or hitting. As they enter adolescence, they might exhibit drug use, antisocial behavior, gang involvement or violence in their interpersonal relationships.
While traditional wisdom implies that children model their behavior after what they observe in the home, not all child witnesses succumb to the cycle of violence. "Being exposed to domestic violence is not deterministic or prescribed, but there is an increased vulnerability," says Safe Start Director White. There's a greater likelihood of helplessness in relationships, or of acting hostile to counter fear and vulnerability, she explains.
However, domestic violence can also contribute to a cycle of empowerment. Ryan's daughter took women's studies courses in college and attended domestic violence training. She is one of the survivors who dealt with abuse by reaching out and educating others.
Helping child witnesses become healthy adults is a primary concern of Safe Start and other domestic violence programs. In particular, Safe Start hopes to increase public awareness by reaching deep into communities and working with policy-makers to educate people about the impact of exposure to violence on children and the importance of identifying early exposure.
Funded in 2000 by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Chicago Safe Start targeted the Englewood and Pullman communities. Out of a total population of 18,992 children under age 5, 26 percent of Englewood children and 24 percent of Pullman children had a primary caregiver who was victimized by partner violence in the last year. Yet intervention often is delayed until the child already is in trouble, White says.
To reverse that trend, doctors and social workers-the professionals who interact with children before they enter school-should be trained to recognize these issues. It requires the entire community to be alert, says Engel, who is also on the Safe Start public awareness committee. A close relative or neighbor can reach out to a mom in need or offer a child a safe, quiet place to talk.
In addition, adults should interact with children in ways that affirm and communicate care. Engel suggests parents make life more predictable for children through regular meals and cuddle time. "Sometimes just those moments provide sustenance and stability and can ameliorate some of what a child is experiencing," she says.
Professional help is essential for child witnesses who experience shame and guilt. Therapists teach them that the violence is not their fault and that they are not responsible for fixing the problem, says Lader of the Chicago Abused Women Coalition.
Therapy also encourages family communication, intending to solidify the bond between mother and child and re-establish a dialogue either silenced or distorted. For example, a man's repeated insults about his wife may affect how their children see her. "The kids have been brainwashed by all this negativity and it can take a while for them to develop a different relationship with the mother," Lader says.
Some children even resent their mother for not getting out of the brutal situation. "It's hard for an older child to understand why their mom would stay in an abusive relationship," Lader says. "They don't understand how complicated and difficult it is."
Like therapy, early education aims to reduce the effects of domestic violence on children. Jennifer Gabrenya, coordinator for the domestic violence prevention and education program at Chicago's Rainbow House, teaches adolescent girls how to have healthy relationships. Many of them think family violence is normal.
She describes their skewed perceptions about male power and their confusion about jealousy and love: A boyfriend might give his girlfriend a cell phone to keep track of her, but she thinks it's a flattering gift. "She doesn't realize that if you love someone and care about them, you trust them," Gabrenya says. Even some of her youngest girls are victims of male aggression, hit by their boyfriends for talking to other guys. "They think, ‘He loves me so much, he just doesn't want to lose me,' she says.
Still, other girls have long heeded warnings about domestic violence and try to stand up for themselves. Unfortunately, they do so by hitting their boyfriends back, thinking that self-defense renders the relationships non-abusive. "I have to put the emphasis on what makes a relationship healthy, not equal," Gabrenya says.
Ryan always wanted a healthy life for herself and her children. After 12 years of physical, emotional, sexual and financial abuse, she escaped. After many more years of therapy, education and reconciliation, her children became concerned and knowledgeable adults, her son a pro-feminist and her daughter a lawyer-to-be who will likely focus on helping others in need.
Though exposed to domestic violence and its effects, her children were spared the scariest consequence of all: the loss of their mother's life. The most dangerous time in an abusive relationship, sometimes ending in homicide, is when the woman attempts to leave. Luckily, Ryan got out alive. Luckily, she came out of the emergency room every time she went in. Otherwise, the ending might not have been happy.
Let us plan your weekend with the best family events and activities in Chicagoland.
Start the week right with deals, prizes, parent life hacks and more delivered straight to your inbox.
Need last-minute ideas for a weekend of family fun? No worries. We've got you.
Get the inside scoop on the people, places and things we are loving right now.
Resources, tips, inspiration and more for parents of children with special needs.
Score exclusive offers from our fabulous advertisers.