Children are not just witnesses but are also victims of domestic violence
When Sandhya’s marriage disintegrated in a cycle of domestic violence (DV) that persisted for nearly 12 years, she tried her best to shield her two young children from her abusive husband.
She fled with them to India, enrolled them in a local nursery school, and defied efforts to send her children back to California. Eventually, her husband persuaded Sandhya to return to the Bay Area when their daughter, Riya, then 6, was ready for American first grade. He made the usual promises to change.
And then, Sandhya’s worst fears about her daughter’s transition materialized. Riya was not ready for her new life. At home, she was witness to an eruption of violence that continued towards her mother. She struggled to adapt to her new environment and her peers.
At 14, Riya ran away from home. A few months later, she chased Sandhya into the bathroom with a knife, threatening to kill her if she came outside. When the police arrived, Riya was handcuffed and taken away. At 14, Riya had a prison record. As a young offender, she wore an ankle bracelet that electronically monitored her whereabouts. In high school, while peers pored over SAT scores and college admissions, Riya dropped out. Her mother remembers an incident when Riya broke a ceramic teapot over her younger brother’s head.
“She was so troubled. She was out of control,” said Sandhya.
Riya never went to college. She became a drug user. Today, Sandhya has no contact with Riya who is now in her twenties.
Children like Riya who witness domestic violence firsthand often become victims themselves.
“DV occurs within and across family systems affecting all of those within the system,” observed Dr. LaTonya Wood, a psychologist who researches long term mental health impacts on children at Pepperdine University.
“Child on parent abuse is increasingly been seen.”
What is intergenerational violence?
Dr. Wood was on a March 4 EMS panel of experts who discussed how to break the cycle of intergenerational violence. She referred to a womenshealth.gov study which found that more than 15 million children in the US live in homes in which domestic violence has happened at least once.
When children are exposed to DV, said Dr. Wood, the impact of mental health outcomes depend in part on the age and stage of development of the child when the violence occurs, and the chronicity in how long the violence occurs in the family.
“These kids show PTSD symptoms that are congruent with their age and stage of development,” she warned.
Childhood exposure to DV can contribute significantly to a cycle of adversity and violence in a cumulative effect that could be carried into adulthood. Children are at greater risk of repeating the cycle as adults by entering into abusive relationships or becoming abusers themselves.
When exposed to an abusive relationship in their homes, children may exhibit aggressive behaviors towards their own parents, intimate partners, or other family members, said Dr. Wood. Over time, the impact of prolonged exposure from a young age, also manifests in risky behaviors such as substance abuse and sexual risk, suicidal ideation, as well as psychological problems of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and anger.
“The earlier children are exposed and the longer it occurs, tend to have poorer outcomes and more long-term difficulties,” noted Dr. Wood.
Long term effects on children
Riya’s exposure to intergenerational DV transmission from childhood to adulthood reflects those long-term consequences. The risky behaviors that emerged during her adolescence – dropping out of school, increased depression and substance use – marked a difficult journey into adulthood.
In adolescents, the intergenerational transmission of violence towards others becomes evident in their interactions with peers. Young people may experience difficulty developing intimate relationships with peers, explained Dr. Wood.
“It’s the age at which relationships and social interaction with peers are critical.”
“What has been modeled for them and demonstrated is that problems are solved through aggression, emotions are expressed through aggression, needs are met through aggression. Exposure to violence in the home is a significant predictor of experience of victimization in intimate relationships by both boys and girls,” she added. Data also shows that these behaviors may continue into adulthood.
However, the trajectory of mental health impacts from childhood exposure to DV can be signposted quite early in a child’s life. At the infant and toddler stage, when they are learning to walk, talk and toilet train, children will tend to show difficulty in these behaviors.
“In fact, they may actually show a regression,” warned Dr. Wood, by reverting from previously learned behaviors. “They may show a delay in language or inability to speak at the same level they did before, revert back to toileting accidents, or have trouble sleeping.”
At ages 3 to 5 , preschoolers who are limited in their verbal ability will express their emotions through actions – temper tantrums and tears. Mental health impact will manifest through somatic complaints such as headaches, stomach aches, or incontinence, even if they have been toilet trained. Like younger kids they may have trouble sleeping, or have nightmares, and exhibit behavioral problems like sleepwalking. Some will refuse to go to school because of separation anxiety and fear of leaving a parent alone for an extended time.
The impact on school age kids may be evident through a variety of factors – depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and anger, delays in academic performance, and difficulty with peer relationships.
Fourth grader Samara was traumatized by the abuse she witnessed against her mother. Leena lived with her abusive partner, her children’s father, for several years. Samara began failing academically. “Her comprehension level is at 2nd grade level,” says her mother. After repeated requests from Leena, the school recently confirmed it will conduct a mental health assessment to support Samara with counseling and extra help.
When preteens like Samara witness violence at home, it affects their academic performance and peer relationships, Dr. Wood concurred. “Some of this is thought to be social learning that’s modeled for them at home. They can be more susceptible to bullying at school, or conversely, display bullying or aggressive behaviors themselves.”
Children are also victims
For children to have a chance of healing and finding a pathway to normalcy, that change must begin with early childhood interventions and more access to resources and safe spaces which often are limited.
But the news is not all grim, says Leiana Kinnicutt, Program Director for Children and Youth at Futures without Violence. “Harm can be repaired. Future violence can be prevented.”
Change must begin by acknowledging children as victims, and not just witnesses, Kinnicutt emphasized. “It opens up a whole new way of looking at DV.”
She believes that for children to heal and build resilience, systems, programs and policy makers must coordinate efforts and be intentional about designing solutions that place the child within the context of their family. Children can “heal within the context of relationships with caregivers, family, community and very importantly, their culture.”
But in the South Asian community which prioritizes the family unit over the individual, people can be harsh on DV survivors who choose to leave their abuser. A woman who is widowed is showered with love and support, but a DV victim is often left to fend for herself, without allies. Her children are ostracized, and she is looked upon with pity and disdain.
In fact, this is the main reason survivors don’t often leave abusive, violent relationships because “Log kya kahenge (what will people say”?)
Rennu Dhillon clearly remembers the sense of isolation during her divorce after an abusive marriage. “Our community is so judgmental. It was always, “Bechari, patha nahi isne kya kiya apne pathi ke saath (poor thing, don’t know what she did with her husband).”
Today, Rennu, a successful Bay Area entrepreneur, empowers women in the community and talks openly about the resilience that got her there.
“When I look back I became a very strong person because of all these life experiences.” She enjoys a nurturing, close relationship with her children and grandchildren. Breaking the insidious effects of transgenerational trauma can be credited to her confident take on life.
What are the Protective Factors?
Though her journey was difficult, Rennu’s positive attributes provided the kind of Protective Factors that Kinnicutt advised, “can help children have a happy and healthy childhood, and help them have the same in their adult lives.”
She described ‘Protective Factors’ as “conditions or attributes in individuals, families, and communities that promote the health and well-being of children and families.” That means safe and stable conditions for families to sustain themselves and factors like social, cultural and spiritual connections.
“Research shows that survivors’ healthy and constructive relationships positively impact their healing and wellbeing. Receiving needed emotional support, having feelings of trust, hope, faith and a belief that they matter – these connections provide non-judgmental support, links to jobs, mental health services, safe housing, connection to people with shared cultural identity – all of these aspects help buffer the impact”
Rennu displayed the resilience and growth mindset which are key factors that influence healing in the long term for survivors.
“Survivors are more than their DV experiences,” remarked Kinnicutt. “They have the potential to persevere and show resilience which help adult and child survivors to internalize a belief in their own power to change, have a sense of purpose, and feel more in control.”
Finding safe spaces for children to heal
However, not all survivors experience the right mix of factors. Even with good intentions, it can be difficult for a survivor to nurture positive parent-child interactions in a hostile environment.
When Anjali was abandoned by her husband and lost her immigration status in the US after divorce, she was grateful to have the support and guidance of elders in her community and shelter at her local gurdwara, when her so-called friends shunned her. Anjali’s family in India also stood by her. Even so, her young son who was traumatized by his parents’ split, blamed her for the violence he had endured, and resorted to hitting her in frustration and fear. At a supervised visitation, Anjali recalls him crying out, “I wish a bear would come and eat me.”
Kinnicutt pointed out that having at least “one loving nurturing protective adult in their life, ideally their parent,” is a major contributor to a child’s healthy development. “Nurturing positive parent child interactions lead to a bond of trust, love, affection between a parent and child. It can help to buffer children from the negative impact of stress and trauma.”
Yet, it can be challenging for victims of DV to surround themselves with protective factors. This is where our South Asian community fails our survivors, by blaming, isolating, and shunning those who need these commonsense measures.
“Children and families do best ..when we think of healing strategies in the context of the family, community and culture, create the conditions and experiences where families thrive,” urged Kinnicutt.
How will the victims – adults and children – heal if we don’t have their back? It is time for our community to embrace these families, support them in the way they need, and help them take control of their lives. It has a trickle-down effect on the generations to come.
At the very least, we have to do it for the children’s sake.
They are the innocent victims.
This content is intended only for mature audiences. CW/TW: domestic violence, language, mental health, mental illness, depression, su*c*de, violent imagery, body image, anger, anxiety, abandonment.
If you or anyone you know needs help, please contact:
Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents and a 2021 and 2022 grantee from the USC Center for Health Journalism, reporting on domestic violence in the South Asian community. She also is a producer at DesiCollective and covers issues that impact minority communities through the lens of social justice, politics, and the arts.
Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney is a producer at DesiCollective and a 2021 and 2022 grantee from the USC Center for Health Journalism, reporting on domestic violence in the South Asian community. She is interested in strengthening communities by exploring the intersection of politics, science & technology, gender equality, social justice and health.
Names have been changed to protect privacy.
We are grateful to the survivors who spoke to us with such honesty and courage.
image: artwork by child survivor, Samara