By Rosalind Sedacca, CDC
When children are exposed to domestic violence in the home, they often mimic the behavior they see or experience.
This means the boys often grow up to become abusers, and the girls grow up to marry them. Most mental health experts who work with victims of physical and sexual assault believe domestic violence is a learned behavior. Children in these situations become desensitized to the violence, and they often begin to mimic their gender role at a young age.
While this is not always the case, it is true the majority of the time – even with children who stay in a shelter with their mothers to escape the violence in their home. The aftermath of divorce creates more complication in a child’s world, adding to the tendency to find comfort behaving like the abuser.
When children witness domestic violence happening in their home, they experience a wide range of emotions, including fear. They become afraid for their mother as well as for themselves. This fear can become crippling and leave a child with feelings of helplessness and despair. In addition, many children often feel guilty and perhaps even responsible for the violence. This can be especially pronounced in cases of divorce, when children frequently take on some of the responsibility in an effort to make sense of what is happening to them. To avoid their feelings of helplessness, many children choose to align with the abuser. They feel safer and stronger when they model the abuse.
Other children may choose to retreat or turn inward. They sometimes try to hide when the violence occurs or listen to loud music so they don’t have to hear the fighting and related abuse. Children who live with domestic violence before or after divorce frequently also have trouble in school. Although school feels like a safe place for these children, they become distracted in class as they worry about their mother or themselves, losing their home or serious financial challenges.
Further complicating the matter, violence is not always physical. Verbal or emotional abuse in a relationship can be just as bad for children who witness or experience it. In fact, many victims state that the toll of persistent emotional abuse can feel even worse than the physical impact.
To break the cycle of domestic violence, children usually benefit from professional counseling along with exposure to positive role models. These children need to learn what a healthy relationship looks like. The longer they are subjected to a toxic home environment, the harder it is to undo the damage.
In some cases, children are able to break the cycle on their own when they become adults. However, most need some type of help along the way. They can get that help through classes and support groups offered at Domestic Abuse Programs available in many communities around the nation. Parents who are victims of this kind of abuse also need to reach out for individual or group support.
If you are experiencing behavior problems with your children, or they are withdrawing emotionally from you, seek out help immediately. The sooner you take action to get the support of a parenting or mental health expert, the faster you can resolve the situation in a positive and mutually beneficial manner.
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Rosalind Sedacca, CDC is a Divorce & Co-Parenting Coach, founder of the Child-Centered Divorce Network and author of How Do I Tell the Kids about the Divorce? A Create-a-Storybook Guide to Preparing Your Children — With Love! For her free ebook on Post-Divorce Parenting, articles, advice, programs, coaching services and other valuable resources for co-parents, go to: http://www.childcentereddivorce.com.
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