Annan Boodram | Children are the most critical reason to leave an abusive relationship
Very often, victims of gender-based abuse say that they choose not to walk away because of the children. The fact is that staying in an abusive relationship because of the children will cause the children to be scarred for life, as growing up in such a home is one of the most terrifying and traumatic experiences a child can go through.
Children in abusive relationships may blame themselves for the abuse, thinking that if they had not done or said a particular thing, the abuse would not have occurred. They may also become angry at their siblings or their mothers for triggering the abuse, and may display increased aggression towards peers or mothers.
Such children may feel rage, embarrassment, and humiliation. They generally feel isolated and vulnerable and can easily engage in self-harm or even become suicidal. They are starved for attention, affection and approval as they become physically, emotionally and psychologically abandoned. Thus, they can also be continually angry and act out or they can become depressed and withdraw, too frightened and embarrassed to speak out and easy to be bullied.
Also, they can be anxious to please and thus become easy to manipulate and be taken advantage of. Some children lose the ability to feel empathy for others. Others may have low self-esteem and become socially isolated, unable to make friends as easily due to social discomfort or confusion over what is acceptable.
Since children have a natural tendency to identify with strength, they may ally themselves with the abuser and lose respect for their seemingly helpless mother.
In fact, there is a definite correlation between violence and child abuse. Growing up in a violent home can set patterns for children – patterns that can cause them to commit violence and abuse, thereby continuing that cycle. In effect, witnessing domestic violence is the single best predictor of juvenile delinquency and adult criminality.
As well, females can also become accepting of abuse, thinking that it is normal, as they grew up seeing it happen continually, with the victim staying rather than leaving. And so they will not only tolerate intimate-partner abuse as they get older, but may actually think such abuse is normal.
Children in abusive relationships may experience developmental delays in speech, motor or cognitive skills. They are also more apt to use poor judgement, have health problems, social and emotional issues, higher risks of alcohol/drug abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder. They are also more apt to become school dropouts, pregnant teens and gun users. They grow up to suffer from low self-esteem, stay in dead-end jobs or worse…not being able to keep a job.
Older children may regress to behaviour they displayed when younger, such as bed-wetting, thumb-sucking, increased crying, and whining. They may also develop difficulty falling or staying asleep; show signs of terror, such as stuttering or hiding; and show signs of severe separation anxiety. Older children may not participate in school activities or get good grades, have fewer friends than others, and get into trouble more often. They also may have a lot of headaches and stomach aches.
Teens who witness abuse may act out in negative ways, such as fighting with family members or skipping school. They may also engage in risky behaviours, such as having unprotected sex and using alcohol or drugs. They may start fights or bully others, and are more likely to get in trouble with the law.
This type of behaviour is more common in teen boys who are abused in childhood than in teen girls. Girls are more likely than boys to be withdrawn and to experience depression.
As well, ‘toxic stress’ on children can result in lifelong emotional, mental, and social damage that can affect children’s developmental growth. In fact, research shows that witnessing abuse carries the same risk of harm to children’s mental health and learning as if the children had been abused directly.
Among childhood adversities, Ronald Kessler, co-director of the World Health Organization’s World Mental Health Survey Initiative, says those involving family violence inflict the worst long-term effects.
“One of the long-term effects of childhood adversity is that they create emotional scars that get reopened when people are exposed to traumas in adulthood – leading to adult PTSD,” Kessler stated.
According to a 2002 US Department of Justice special report, children who grow up in homes where violence is present are:
n Six times more likely to take their lives.
n 24 times more likely to be sexually assaulted.
n 67 times more likely to engage in delinquent behaviour as adolescents.
n 100 times more likely to be abusers themselves.
n 500 times more likely to be abused or neglected.
In effect, children should be the most critical reason not to stay in an abusive relationship. However, The Caribbean Voice must also make it clear that we are not advocating walking away from a relationship without first trying to work things through. Family/loved ones interventions, followed by couples’ counselling are critical first steps.
But if these don’t work, then we quite emphatically say that if children are in the picture, using them as an excuse to remain in an abusive relationship is counterproductive, and such children can be permanently harmed for life.
By the same token, we also emphasise that children should never be used as pawns by parents against each other or by one parent against the other. Instead, children must be reassured of the love of both parents who will both always be there for them, the children, in spite of the separation.