By Lora Griff, MSW, LCSW-C
In the 2014 released movie and 2012 best-selling book Wild, Cheryl Strayed shares her own story as a young woman bereft from the recent loss of her endearing mother and the demise of her own marriage. Through a series of flashbacks, she recalls the events that led her to work through her loss by trekking the Pacific Crest Trail from LA to Oregon, over 1000 miles on foot. There are many sources of her personal struggle but one blatant factor is that she was a child witness to spousal abuse. Her father beat her mother and disciplined the children with threats of a knuckle sandwich. In one of the movie’s scenes, there is fear and desperation in the child Cheryl's eyes as she runs into the pharmacy to get medical supplies for her mother who is recovering from a recent beating. Children who witness violence between their parents are the untold victims of domestic abuse.
In early writings about women in abusive relationships in the 1970’s, theorists indicated that victims tend to withstand physical abuse until their children also become targets, at which point they are more likely to leave the relationship. What is now known in the domestic abuse field is that any exposure to abuse affects the children. Witnessing domestic abuse includes hearing the arguments and fighting noises from another room, watching the incidents of violence, observing the physical aftermath of abuse, and sensing the resulting fear and tension in the home. More than 3 million children witness violence in their homes each year1 and over 75% of children who live in homes with domestic abuse have observed violence at least once2.
There are short- and long-term impacts on child witnesses of domestic abuse. Short-term impacts include increased anxiety, depression, fear, anger, physical symptoms such as stomachaches and headaches, and poor school performance due to decreased concentration. Long-term effects include impaired future relationships in which they may identify with and assume the role of either the victimized or abusive partner. Without intervention, the cycle of violence often perpetuates with the next generation.
Over the last two decades, awareness has increased about the effects witnessing abuse has on children. We now know that the severity of the impact depends on a variety of factors, including chronicity and severity of abuse, and the presence of other risk factors, including substance abuse, poverty and mental illness. Children who are best able to survive these situations demonstrate high self-esteem, have parents who are tuned into the impact of witnessing abuse, and have other protective adult family or community members in their lives. JCADA works with clients to empower them to create a safe home for their families and become role models for being survivors rather than victims of abuse.
Lora Griff is a licensed clinical social worker in Maryland and Virginia. She was a clinical consultant and community presenter for JCADA and now serves on JCADA’s Clinical Committee. Griff is also a Board Certified Diplomate in Clinical Social Work and a member of the National Association of Social Workers and the Greater Washington Society for Clinical Social Work.