Take a second to think about your childhood growing up. Picture the people, environment and memories that helped define you as a kid. Now open your eyes, look in the mirror and ask yourself this one question – how did those people, that environment and those memories shape who you are today?
For some, this is a positive experience as they reflect on how supportive parents, a safe environment and happy memories laid the foundation for the successful, strong and caring person they are today. Unfortunately, that is not the case for many.
An estimated 15.5 million children in America live in homes where physical relationship violence has occurred in the past year.1 That is nearly three times the entire population of Colorado. For many of these children, the reflection exercise is more about confronting demons and the traumatic harm that it caused in the moment, throughout their development and into adulthood.
Perhaps the most apparent impact of growing up in a home with relationship violence is the immediate harm that is caused. Whether they witness the abuse personally or are just affected by living in a home where abuse is occurring, kids can experience severe physical and mental injury.
A study published in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine found that children whose mothers experienced severe physical abuse are more than twice as likely as other kids to end up in the emergency room themselves.2 Estimates indicate at least 30 percent of child abuse cases also involve relationship violence.3
Even when a kid doesn’t experience direct abuse, they still can end up suffering fatal consequences. In mass shootings related to family violence – which account for over half of all mass shootings in the United States – more than 2 in 5 victims are children.4
Not all wounds bleed or bruise, however. Researchers have identified a higher prevalence of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms in kids who witness relationship violence. This includes recurring nightmares, flashbacks, sleeping problems, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, bedwetting and irritability. They are also found to be at a greater risk of other health issues such as allergies, asthma, gastrointestinal problems, headaches and the flu.5
“While they may not be able to articulate their feelings about abuse, they can feel the feelings in their body,” said Christine Garcia, a psychotherapist and co-owner of Children’s Wellness Center of Colorado. “Children that are pre-verbal can still exhibit signs of trauma even if they don’t have the words to express it.”
Impact on Development
Despite the notion that kids are resilient and have the inherent ability to grow past the abuse they witness as a child, research indicates otherwise. The impact of relationship violence is felt throughout adolescence and heavily influences childhood development.
Children who are exposed to relationship violence are at an increased risk for substance abuse and depression.6 They are also more likely to engage in juvenile delinquency, antisocial behavior and suffer from anxiety.7
Although some of these behaviors can be easily identified from an outsider’s perspective. They are complicated by the fact that they are all characteristics of what is commonly classified as “just being a teenager”. This assumption, however, only makes it more difficult for children to come forward about the abuse in their home since they are told that what they are experiencing is “normal”.
This dynamic only becomes more influential when a child enters sexual maturity and is told their negative emotions are simply the cause of hormones. That is also the point at which the kid who is victimized at home begins to victimize others and starts a new generation in their family’s legacy of abuse.
“I think relationship violence can be generational because abusive behavior is learned behavior,” Garcia said. “It’s a way of being in relationship with others. It defines what we think about our roles as spouses, parents and dating partners. Without a focused effort on evaluating our belief systems regarding how we treat our partners and expect to be treated by our partners, we are likely to slip into familiar patterns.”
Perpetuating the Cycle
Despite the experience, most children that grow up in abusive homes don’t grow up to be violent. In fact, many become adamantly nonviolent to define themselves as the opposite of the person who they witnessed using abusive behaviors.
However, numerous studies over decades of research indicate a correlation between growing up in an abusive home and being abusive later in life. Without protective factors such as a supportive adult influence or positive life experiences that mitigate the impact of negative events, a child can end up repeating the abusive behaviors that were modeled for them.
“Since children learn about the world in their homes, primarily, it is not unusual to see similar patterns in their own interpersonal relationships,” Garcia said. “We see some children practicing abusive behavior – or bullying – toward their peers and we see other children excusing or minimizing abusive behavior. As they move into teen relationships, these same dynamics can emerge as patterns.”
Minimizing the Impact
Despite the heavy influence of a child’s home environment and the adults in their life, it is possible to prevent them from perpetuating the cycle. Whether you are a family member, friend, neighbor or even the person using abusive behaviors in the home, you can make a difference.
If you know of a child that is growing up – or did grow up – in a home with relationship violence, you can support them and serve as a positive influence in their development. Just providing a safe, stable and nurturing relationship can make a huge difference in the life of someone that might not experience that otherwise.
On an individual level, therapeutic treatment can be one of the most impactful protective factors.
“Validating their feelings and even acknowledging that the abuse is happening can be incredibly healing,” Garcia said. “Unfortunately, we do not listen to children enough and – or – they are scared into silence. Therapy is a wonderful place to process difficult experiences and work through the associated feelings and trauma from those experiences.”
If you are using abusive behaviors in your relationship, you also have a role to play in preventing the child in your home from growing up to do the same. Change is possible and we can help you achieve it. Reach out to the Stand Up Colorado Helpline at 855-978-2638 or chat online with our trained professionals who will connect you with support resources across the state.
1Journal of Family Psychology. Estimating the Number of American Children Living in Partner-Violent Families. (2006).
2Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. Health Care Use of Children Whose Female Caregivers Have Intimate Partner Violence Histories. (2008).
3Journal of Family Psychology. The Co-occurrence of Spouse and Physical Child Abuse: A Review and Appraisal. (1998).
4Everytown for Gun Safety. Mass Shootings in the United States: 2009-2016. (2017).
5Journal of Pediatrics. Violence Exposure and Traumatic Stress Symptoms as Additional Predictors of Health Problems in High-Risk Children. (2005).
6Journal of Pediatrics. Adverse Childhood Experiences and the Association with Ever Using Alcohol and Initiating Alcohol Use During Adolescence. (2006).
7Massachusetts Medical Society. Intimate Partner Violence: The Clinician’s Guide to Identification, Assessment, Intervention, and Prevention. (2015).