When looking at abusive marriages, a common assumption is that as long the children are not victims of the violence, they are not affected by the abuse. We at JCADA know that this is absolutely and unfortunately not the case.
Many victims of abuse themselves do not understand the impact the violence in their homes has on their children. A 3 year study found that while only 54% of women admitted that their children knew about the abuse going on in their relationship, 77% of the children said that they were aware of the abuse.1 Children are more observant than we think. While they may not always witness the violence, they do witness the aftermath, which may be as traumatizing.
In fact, childhood exposure to abuse (not just physical violence) impacts the development of the brain. Children may live in a state of fear and chronic stress, not knowing what is safe and what is normal, and this can actually cause part of their brain to shut down. Children, even very young children, become what they are exposed to.
Negative effects of exposure to abuse on children include:
Increased health problems
Difficulty with attachment
Increased risk of developing mental health problems
Negative effects on school performance 2
Sadly, if not given the support they need, many of these problems may also persist long after the exposure to the abuse has ended.
So what can we do?
We can provide opportunities for children to talk about their feelings and validate those feelings, give children the message that it’s not their fault, arrange time for them with supportive adults who can model healthy relationships, give children a sense of self-agency and create opportunities to promote healthy brain development. These are only some of the ways we can help negate the effects of an abusive home on children.
The good news is that people, especially children, can be very resilient. Our brains are constantly adding neurons, healing, and learning new behaviors to move forward from past trauma. Resiliency is a muscle that we all can learn to strengthen with time, practice, and encouragement from others.