The pandemic has created all kinds of stress for everyone. Stress can often enable violence and so we need to be ready, especially now, to support those who are living through it.
Our guest writer Suzanne Marcotte is a Social Worker and Abuse and Trauma Therapist at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa, Ontario. She discusses the “cycle of violence” and what family support practitioners can do to help.
Sitting to write this blog, I reflect on the number of children I have worked with over the years that have been exposed to domestic violence. I think of a young teen who every night placed her sibling’s shoes by the door, ready for a quick exit; I think of that young boy who only felt safe sleeping in his closet, or I think of another teen who—years after not living with her father—is still haunted by memories of him abusing her mother. The first thought that comes to my mind is how I don’t like the terms “exposed to” or “witness of” domestic violence. Children live the violence. All aspects of their development are impacted by it.
“A boy who sees his mother being abused is 10 times more likely to abuse his female partner as an adult. A girl who grows up in a home where her father abuses her mother is more than six times as likely to be sexually abused as a girl who grows up in a non-abusive home.” (1)
More and more, we understand what causes “the cycle of violence.” Through research, we are learning the impact of stress hormones produced in our body when we are in fearful situations. These hormones will change the developing brain of a child in different ways. They impact many parts of the brain, including those linked to language, the ability to regulate affect, and executive functioning (2).
Domestic violence can also transform the attachment relationship. Mothers can be nurturing, caring, and responding well to their little ones, but when they are assaulted and scared, they can’t respond to their child’s distress. This creates disorganization in the attachment, again impacting the ability to regulate affect. Home should be our safe harbour, but for children who grow up in a home where there is violence, safety often becomes a foreign concept. That loss of sense of safety can even lead to PTSD.
What can we do?
- Support the mother! Connect her to services that can help her even if she is not ready to leave (3).
- Don’t judge. Victims of domestic violence, like of victims of child abuse, carry incredible shame and it is important that they are met with care and empathy.
- Help children build resiliency. This can be done in many ways: by supporting them in developing coping strategies and tools to regulate their affect; by raising their self-esteem; by teaching them how to set goals and achieve them; by sharing humour; by building positive memories (box of positive memories); by teaching them visualization; by building competency; and by helping them connect with others.
It is also important to take care of ourselves. Knowing that a family is struggling with issues related to violence makes us often feel powerless. Self-care becomes important.
Social Worker & Abuse and Trauma Therapist
Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario
- Vargas, L. Cataldo, J., Dickson, S. (2005). Domestic Violence and Children. In G.R. Walz & R.K. Yep (Eds.), VISTAS: Compelling Perspectives on Counseling. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association; 67-69.
- For more information on the impact of violence on the developing brain one can read the work of Bruce Perry and Bessel Van Der Kokl amongst others.
- The Ontario Network for Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence Treatment Centers has on its website a list of centers all across Ontario. It can be a good resource to get more information, especially around local services. « L’action ontarienne contre la violence faite aux femmes » would also have on its website very pertinent information for francophone services.