Everyone has heard about domestic violence. Domestic violence happens when two or more adults are involved in a domestic dispute, right? Sometimes, but more often domestic violence involves a long-term relationship with emotional and mental abuse or neglect that is accompanied by physical abuse. This abuse and neglect not only affect the adults involved, but also the children who are exposed to it on a daily basis. Children raised in homes where domestic violence is prominent suffer immensely from exposure to this behavior.
Children are innocent survivors of domestic violence. When their primary caregivers, parents, step-parents, grandparents or guardians are experiencing domestic violence, children are exposed to behaviors that they soon develop as their own means of communication. When anger and violence are used as tools to express emotions, children begin to believe that is the norm. Oftentimes in relationships such as this, a family may be isolated from the community and the children do not have any healthy role models to reassure them that this is not all right or to show them a different type of relationship. Children exposed to domestic violence can be mentally and emotionally scarred as a result.
Children who witness or hear domestic violence live in a constant state of fear. The reactions that they can have vary depending on their age. With little opportunity to learn coping skills for managing uncomfortable emotions, children from these homes learn similar destructive behaviors that have been modeled for them. Therefore, when children have the same uncomfortable emotions, they tend to react exactly as they have been shown. Statistics show that children living with domestic violence are more prone to be in these types of relationships as adults.
Working with these children takes patience and understanding of the cycle of violence. These children have had no one to show them a different way to deal with emotions and will need to be not only told that there is a different way, but shown there is a different way. Advocates for these children must not only model good communication, but must do so while handling their own frustrations in a healthy, positive way.
Community members, doctors, teachers, coaches, program administrators and neighbors can provide the positive influence that these children need. When a child is overactive, inattentive and displays inappropriate physical or verbal behaviors, it is not always a matter of that child having attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder or attention deficit disorder. These behaviors may be a result of what has been modeled to them. When disciplining these children, we should keep in mind that we may be the only people in their lives who can model appropriate behavior. In other words, our interactions with children who live with domestic violence may be what shows them that there is another way. Healthy communication is the key to setting an example for children who live with abuse.
As long as there are children exposed to violence, there will be adults who use violence and adults who accept violence as normal behavior. A more in-depth understanding of what domestic violence is and the effects that it has on children is necessary in our culture in order to decrease the cycle of violence in these families and in our communities.
At the YWCA of Missoula, the Children's Program is designed to address this need. Our programs are designed to educate and support families on issues surrounding domestic abuse and its consequences. In 2007, the Pathways program served 1,276 survivors of domestic violence, as well as their children, from the Missoula area. With the support received from the Missoula community, the YWCA's mission is to end the cycle of violence. The Children's Program focuses on issues that face the children in these families.
Each month the Missoulian Health page features a column by the Healthy Start Council of the Missoula Forum for Children and Youth, a coalition of groups and individuals working collaboratively to help Missoula's kids grow up to be healthy and resilient. The YWCA of Missoula is a member of the Healthy Start Council. Geri Gremaux is Children's Program Coordinator of the YWCA and can be reached at 543-6691, extension 120 or firstname.lastname@example.org.