In the last year, we have witnessed an avalanche of courageous women publicly describe the frequency of violence they have experienced, often at the hands of men and boys they knew well.
Much of the dialogue has focused on sexual violence and the #MeToo movement. However, personal stories of domestic abuse and intimate partner violence, as well as hashtags like #WhyIStayed and #SurvivorSpeaks, deserve our attention as well.
Nationally, over 20 percent of women will experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime. Research has shown the effects can be lasting and devastating. Beyond the physical injuries, abused women also suffer higher rates of PTSD, depression, and lowered sense of agency and self-esteem, all of which can make it more difficult to flee an abusive partner.
Many of these women have children who will witness the abuse of their mother. About one in 15 children are exposed to intimate partner violence each year and 90 percent will directly witness the abuse.
The definition of domestic violence is deliberately broad, to invoke the pattern of abusive behaviors that are designed to maintain power and control over an intimate partner, including repeated physical, sexual, emotional, or financial cruelties. That domestic abuse is typically a pattern of behavior – not a one time event – means that children typically witness traumatic events repeatedly, as well as live with the aftermath of each violent assault.
They may experience a mother who needs medical attention, but is not allowed to leave the house to access it. A chaotic and angry household where there is no sense of safety or routine. The deprivation that results when a mother is barred by her abuser of making financial decisions in the best interests of herself and her children. A confusing cycle of calm underscored by the dread of another violent explosion.
Danielle Bills, LCSW, and social services program manager of the Domestic Abuse Project of Delaware County, says that mothers who seek their services frequently describe how the violence has impacted their children.
"Some of the major themes that we hear are 'my child is showing anxiety, depression, difficulty sleeping or overly attached behaviors,' but also that the children may be acting out, or bullying other children in school," Bills said.
Decades of research has shown that children of abused mothers are indeed at elevated risk for psychological problems, underachievement at school, difficulties making and keeping friends, and low self-esteem. These effects can be long-lasting and interfere with healthy development.
For instance, in the first longitudinal study of its kind, published in 2016, children of abused mothers were shown to manifest clinical levels of behavioral problems (26 percent) and symptoms of anxiety and depression (31 percent) when their mothers first sought help at shelters or district attorneys' offices. For a substantial minority of these children (12-13 percent), the problems were still present at clinical levels when the study ended five years later. The severity and longevity of the children's symptoms were related to the severity and longevity of the post-traumatic symptoms of their mothers.
The results of that study hint at what is the best way to protect children from the adverse outcomes associated with witnessing domestic violence: Preventing, protecting, and removing their mothers from violence perpetrated by an intimate partner in the first place.
The more support a community provides these women – in the form of belief, compassion, accessible services, and resources – the better mothers and their children will fare. Bills agrees, "There is something beautiful for a child who has seen the worst, but is now outside of that environment and gets to have structure and safety and routine – they can heal."
For more information:
When Dad Hurts Mom: Helping Your Children Heal the Wounds of Witnessing Abuse and Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, both by Lundy Bancroft and recommended by the National Domestic Violence Hotline, offer sound and compassionate advice to women on how to recognize and name the abuse they are subjected to in their homes, as well as how to help themselves and their children.
Women Against Abuse offers support, education, safe haven, transitional housing, and legal aid for survivors of intimate partner violence in Philadelphia. 866-723-3014 (24-hour hotline)
Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalition's (SEAMAAC) Safe Families: Domestic Violence Services provides intimate partner violence services for Asian immigrant communities in Philadelphia. 215-476-0690
Domestic Abuse Project of Delaware County works to prevent domestic violence and empower victims to move towards self-sufficiency. 610-565-4590 (24-hour hotline)
The Latina Domestic Violence Program (LDVP) is a counseling and advocacy program for women and child survivors of domestic violence in Philadelphia. 215-763-8870 x1210
Women Organized Against Rape (WOAR) is Philadelphia's provider of specialized counseling and advocacy services for survivors of sexual violence. 215-985-3333 (24-hour hotline)