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Child as Victim and Witness of Domestic Violence
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In the last section, we discussed the Cycle of Violence
as it related to four Anger Release Techniques of write a letter, pound on the
bed, shred paper, and scream into a pillow.
In this section, we will discuss children
in violent homes who experience the Double Dose. The Double Dose of domestic violence
is not only witnessing abuse, but also being abused.
may know, the symptoms of children who have witnessed abuse are very similar to
children who have been abused themselves. As you also may be aware, studies indicate
that the traumatic effects on children witnessing domestic violence are equally
as harmful as the effects of child abuse. In 30-60% of the homes where women are
abused, the children are abused as well. Some estimate that at least half the
men that batter their partners also abuse their children.
have found the symptoms of children who experience the Double Dose of witnessing
abuse and being abused, to be more pronounced than those just witnessing the abuse.
3 Results of the Double Dose
However, there are several symptoms we have not yet discussed that are more subtle
than the more obvious warning signs of anxiety, depression, anger, impaired cognitive
functioning, and self-esteem problems. I often see the following three symptoms
in children experiencing the Double Dose.
♦ #1 Decreased Empathy
Have you found, like I, that a violent home environment
can greatly diminish a child's ability to be empathic and understand how others
feel? Samantha, a 13-year old girl, was living with foster parents after she had
witnessed her father paralyze her mother by beating her with a baseball bat after
he came home on drugs. Samantha had also been physically abused by her father
for years and showed very little empathy for others in the group. Samantha stated,
"My foster parents just don't understand what's going on. They try to get
me to talk about what I'm feeling, but I tell them to shut up and then lock myself
in my room. I usually won't come out for dinner."
♦ Exercise: Empathy Journal
Samantha was not able to consider that they were just trying to help and that
her refusal probably hurt them very much. To help Samantha increase her empathy
for others, I asked her to keep an Empathy Journal. For this Empathy Journal,
Samantha wrote a short story in the journal each day. The only rules were that
each story had to be from the perspective of someone with whom she had interacted
that day. Over the course of several weeks, this process of placing herself in
others' shoes became more natural to her, and I found Samantha considered the
feelings of others more before she acted. If you haven't tried an Empathy Journal
with your Samantha, I find it to be an extremely effective tool.
♦ #2 Hyper-Vigilance
As with many children who have witnessed
and been abused, Samantha also showed signs of hyper-vigilance. She stated, "I
used to lay in bed until 3 or 4 in the morning, until my Dad would come home before
I could go to sleep. I knew that I needed to be awake when he got home in case
he and my mom started fighting." I found that Samantha carried this fear
of impending danger with her even when she was away from her parents. She stated,
"I usually can't sleep more than a few hours a night. I wake up after every
little thing, like the other night I woke up terrified when the cat sneezed from
across the room."
As you know, for children like Samantha,
this fear of impending danger often affects their sleeping and waking life. Samantha
suffered more hyper-vigilance at night. We discussed some basic relaxation techniques
that could help her fall back to sleep. I also suggested that she softly play
a CD of her favorite music when she went to bed at night. That way the music could
drown out the sounds that may wake her, and if she did wake up, she would hear
her calming music and perhaps not be so frightened. Does your Samantha have a
favorite CD she might play to assist her with her hyper-vigilant state?
♦ #3 Fear of Retaliation
In our sessions together, I also
found that Samantha seemed very cautious regarding telling me about the abuse
she endured. Samantha was still in contact with her parents and was very unsure
about how they would react to her telling about what had happened. Samantha described
her panic attacks by saying, "I feel jittery, afraid, and have a knot in my stomach when I think about the beating I'm going to get for talking to you."
In addition to her safety, I discussed with Samantha some things to do when she
felt panicky. Samantha thought it might help to calm herself down to hug her teddy
bear or pet her cat or call her friend, Natalie. Does your abused child have a
favorite stuffed animal, pet, or friend to call? Perhaps their teddy bear or cat
may be a " source of support" you are overlooking.
this section, we discussed the double dose results of decreased empathy, hyper-vigilance,
and fear of retaliation that children who both experience as well as witness abuse.
Think for a moment. You have received five techniques in this section. Would any
be beneficial enough at some point in time to replay this section to review the
techniques of an Empathy Journal, CD as a sleep aid, stuffed animals, pets for
comfort, or the client calling a friend?
Of course children experiencing
the double dose of being abused are removed from the home. In the next section,
we will discuss Adjustment Disorder.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Kilpatrick, K. L., & Williams, L. M. (1997). Post-traumatic stress disorder in child witnesses to domestic violence. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 67(4), 639–644.
McAuliff, B. D., Nicholson, E., Amarilio, D., & Ravanshenas, D. (2013). Supporting children in U.S. legal proceedings: Descriptive and attitudinal data from a national survey of victim/witness assistants. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 19(1), 98–113.
Schmidt, C. W., & Brigham, J. C. (1996). Jurors' perceptions of child victim-witnesses in a simulated sexual abuse trial. Law and Human Behavior, 20(6), 581–606.
What are three signs that a child may be experiencing the double dose
of both witnessing and experiencing abuse? To select and enter your answer go