“They didn’t see anything.”
“They were in another room.”
These are some of the words I’ve heard from victims of domestic violence whose children were exposed. They were words spoken in the hopes that the walls which were thick enough to prevent a child from seeing anything would have also been thick enough to protect the child from what he or she could hear. Children listen. They hear Daddy’s angry tones. They hear Mommy’s pleas for mercy. They hear Daddy ignoring the plea.
Then they see what happened in the other room. They see that Mommy doesn’t move around very easily. They see that she is crying. They see her sad face. They see that Daddy isn’t angry any more after Mommy is hurt.
If the children are old enough to understand Mommy’s words making excuses about Daddy’s behaviors, they also understand the difference between what they are being told and what they witness with their eyes and ears.
For Mommy to stay she has to numb herself to the harsh realities that the children witness, internalize and try to make sense of. Mommy numbs herself in denial after Daddy “makes up” so she can brace herself with the hope that it will never happen again.
The children are learning the patterns.
Little girls are learning that saying “Please” and “I’m sorry” won’t stop the violence. Little girls learn to continue to try to please someone who cannot be pleased. Little girls are learning that sometimes if they make themselves small enough, they can postpone the violence. But not forever. Little girls learn that this is the way big boys and big girls interact with each other. Little girls learn how to do relationships by watching Mommy get hurt and making excuses for him while hoping that he’ll change and never taking a stand to ensure her own safety and personal happiness. This is what little girls learn.
Little boys learn that they should blame someone else for their unhappiness and take it out on someone else instead of doing the personal work it takes to make things right inside of him. Little boys learn that Daddy’s should be loving and kind and generous until they want something or until someone does something that makes Daddy uncomfortable. Then it is okay for Daddys to make other people cry, to hurt them and to scare them until he gets what he wants.
That’s what little girls and little boys learn from watching Domestic Abuse and Violence between Mommy and Daddy.
For babies who don’t understand, it is much, much worse. Babies hear the screaming and the punches and the crying. Babies see the flashes of siren lights on the walls. Babies hear the sounds of broken glass and broken bones. Babies grow brain cells around all of these sensations in a way that registers these things as “how life is.” Babies learn to be violent Babies learn to seek the stimulation that was provided to their developing brain cells. Babies grow up to be adults with knots tied tightly around the sounds, sights and sensations of domestic violence. Babies grow up to become adults who seek more of the same. It’s mapped into their brains.
Many victims fear leaving their abusers feeling ill-equipped for helping their children grieve the loss of a parent who brought violence into the home.
I would submit to you that grief is better. Grief takes about 6 months to a year to heal. The other things described in this post may never, ever get better.
To get hear a discussion of how you can help your children deal with loss, click here.
© Tamara Bess, LMFT 2014 All Rights Reserved. Any use of this article without Tamara’s express written permission is prohibited.