By Heather Teater, See the Triumph Guest Blogger
Children do not have to be the direct victims of abuse to be affected by domestic violence. Witnessing intimate partner violence can have a range of effects on a child or adolescent’s emotional and behavioral health. For example, children who have witnessed domestic violence have been found to have higher rates of PTSD, depression, and aggression than their peers. Witnessing intimate partner abuse has also been linked to decreased school functioning, increased risky behavior, and higher rates of future substance abuse (Wood & Sommers, 2011). With this knowledge, some might ask parents who are in abusive relationships why they don’t “just leave” their partners to save their children. However, it is not that easy and leaving is not always an immediate option.
There are many circumstances that prevent men and women from getting out of abusive relationships. Perhaps most importantly, leaving can be dangerous and planning for safety is not an easy process. People who are in violent relationships are also often cut off from the support of friends and family. Violent partners may be in control of financial resources, leaving victims with only two options: stay with the perpetrator or leave with no money to survive. The victim may be dependent on an abusive partner in other ways as well, such as for medical insurance, access to transportation, or support for a disability. Having children may also make leaving more difficult. The victim has to find room for him- or herself and the children to stay, has to find the financial means to support multiple people, and has to plan for the safety of the whole family. Leaving is not a task that can be taken lightly and nobody should ever suggest that a victim of intimate partner violence should “just leave.”
If you are unable to leave the violent situation at this time but have children who are witnessing the intimate partner abuse that is occurring in your household, there are steps you can take to help prevent them from suffering with long-standing effects. First and foremost, you should sit down with your children and a professional, if possible, to construct a safety plan for when violence is occurring in the presence of your children. Do you have a neighbor who would be willing to look after your children until the violent episode is over? If not, is there a safe place in or around your house to where your children can run when you and your partner begin to argue? Do your children know how to dial 911? Do they know your address? These are a few examples of what might be included in a safety plan. It is recommended that you create a personalized safety plan with a professional, but if you are unable to meet with a professional at this time, you can find a template for a safety plan here: http://www.ncdsv.org/images/DV_Safety_Plan.pdf . Be sure to keep this safety plan in a place where it is unlikely to be found by your partner.
Your children may also benefit from receiving counseling. If you do not have your own insurance or are unable to afford counseling, look for a non-profit agency in your area where you can receive services at a free or discounted rate. Counseling can help your children develop new skills to cope with the violence occurring at home, with an ultimate goal of preventing any long-term effects.
Just as it is important for you to build up your support system, it will also be helpful for your children to develop a support network of healthy friendships. More importantly, your children need to know that you love and care for them. Spending time with your children will help them know that while you are hurting, they are not at fault.
Please note that if you decide to leave your violent relationship, most domestic violence shelters do provide shelter for children along with their parents. There are supports out there for you and your family. You and your children to not have to be victims anymore. You can find more information at the resources below.
Heather Teater recently completed her Master's degree in Couple and Family Counseling in the Department of Counseling and Educational Development at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.