As a former counselor at a woman’s shelter for domestic violence, my main responsibility was to counsel children who were in abusive situations. Some of these clients were abused physically, sexually, or mentally while others witnessed abuse in their household. In my own experiences, those who only witnessed events in comparison to those who were directly abused all had various behaviors due to their personal traumas.
There is really no way to classify what kind of behavior a child will display when domestic violence or child abuse occurs. I have seen children who were brutally abused, physically, and acted out in violent ways. Not able to maintain their own anger, children have acted out physically towards other people or objects. I have witnessed many events where children would beat on their mothers, in the shelter, because of something they witnessed and learned in the household. Some of these child victims did not receive physical abuse from the perpetrator, but picked up on the behaviors of the abuser just by viewing his/her actions. It is amazing and saddening to see that actions such as these are considered normal to one single child. One thing is for sure, most of these behaviors are a result of anger. This may be anger towards their mother for leaving the household, anger at themselves for not being able to stop the violence, or simply anger towards minute matters (considering that this is the most popular learned emotion of the child).
Saddening again, there are also children who act out in silence. I have witnessed many cases of child abuse and domestic violence that were of the most severe cases and noticed that the child in the situation was often quiet and isolated. To people who do not have a background in domestic violence, these behaviors may seem normal, or one may be comforted in knowing that the child is not abusive or angered. To a professional, however, it is apparent that the anger is locked inside of the child and that fear is of high concern in a child’s mind. With built up fear and anger, a child is likely to become harmful to themselves or others around them when they come out of the isolation state. As heartbreaking as it can be, for therapy or couseling to be successful, the anger must come out but can present itself in healthy forms.
I have touched on some behaviors associated with physical abuse but noticed that mental abuse in the household can traumatize a child as much, if not more, than physical abuse. I have heard many woman state that they would rather be physically abused than mentally abused because the physical abuse usually lasts seconds compared to the constant mental abuse, or brainwashing (which is what I like to call it). Usually after physical abuse occurs, a honey moon stage follows. The abuser changes his ways for a certain amount of time by showing his/her victims with good behavior or gestures. Many times, children who are mentally abused often start to believe that they will not amount to anything, that they are not beautiful, or that they are simply no good. Of course, as advocates we know this is not the case but how do you tell that to a child who has been mentally brainwashed with these thoughts, by a loved one, over a long period of time. Who would you believe? Would you take the advice from a stranger or keep their beliefs geared towards your family’s actions?
Mental abuse can be violent, heart wrenching, and have long term events that help to shape a child’s life. If a child is taught that he/she is not worthy or good enough, this will diminish future successes, repeat the cycle in future relationships, and in most cases depression occurs. In order for the healing process to occur, a child must be removed from the abusive situations. Although many mothers receive counseling with their children while still living in an abusive household, the healing process usually does not occur until the children are able to see that there is a better lifestyle they can live. Until they are actually living that better lifestyle, it is harder for a child to envision what it will really be like. Children, in most cases, are visual. If they continue to live in an abusive household, what they see is usually what they will believe. Although counseling would still be recommended, it is used more as a tool to recognize red flags and give women/men/children the strength they need to leave a violent situation.
Many people have their theories on the cycles and learned behaviors of abuse. I have seen, first hand, that there is no way to classify how a victim will react specifically to certain levels of violence. Anger usually is an issue, whether it is bottled up or displayed publically. The only way, in my opinion, to start the healing process is to remove one’s self from the situation. Although this is not an “instant” cure, it is the first step to a long road of recovery.