Intimate Partner Violence

How Is My Young Child Being Affected By Exposure To Intimate Partner Violence (IPV)? And What Should I Do?
By: Elizabeth Daley

When Margaret and Tony started dating, she was really happy. Shortly after they got married, he changed for the worse: he started physically, sexually, and psychologically abusing Margaret, as well as threatening and belittling her. She felt trapped.

As time progressed, he was violent in front of the children and screamed at them, even when they had done nothing wrong. Then, after twelve years of marriage, Tony trapped Margaret in the kitchen and threw her to the floor. Their children heard her screams from the living room, but they hadn’t directly seen the violence.

That night, Margaret called the police and her family was taken to a safe house, where they felt safe for the first time in years. However, she was concerned about how her children might be affected by their exposure to domestic violence. (“Margaret’s Story: Recovering from Domestic Abuse.” National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. NSPCC.)

What is Considered Child Exposure to IPV?
Children are exposed to IPV in many ways: by seeing or hearing the violence, being directly involved in the violence, and observing the aftermath of the violence (parent’s injuries, broken furniture, etc.).  Abusive behaviors that children might witness include emotional abuse, stalking, threats against caregivers, threats to commit suicide, violent sexual acts, physical assaults, and even murder.

Is Child Exposure to IPV a Form of Child Abuse?
Yes. In the United States, child exposure to IPV is considered child abuse. Some may think that young children who witness IPV experience minimal effects. However, research suggests that young children can be affected more intensely by IPV exposure than previously believed. Witnessing IPV between caregivers may have devastating effects on children’s healthy development and can be a threat to young children’s sense of security and wellbeing, which influences all aspects of their development.

How is my Young Child Being Affected by Exposure to IPV?
In short, exposure to IPV threatens children’s social-emotional, psychological, physical, and neurological development. IPV exposure can have negative influences on all levels of children’s development and these problems can be manifested from infancy through adulthood.

Why is this? Researchers suggest that early childhood experiences lay the foundation for later development, so children are negatively affected when they witness one of their caregivers abusing the other. Here are some ways that witnessing IPV can harm children’s healthy development:

Attachment Problems: Young children who develop secure attachment relationships with caregivers are most likely to experience optimal development and prosocial outcomes, such as higher levels of social competence, more regulated responses to emotions, stronger intellect, higher language skills, increased school readiness, and less dependence on adults.

When young children are distressed, it is vital that they have strong attachments with a caregiver who can provide protection and comfort. In the event of witnessing IPV, however, the caregiver may be unavailable to offer safety to the child because the caregiver is the source of trauma or because the caregiver is emotionally traumatized.

Children who do not have secure attachments with a caregiver often become fearful when placed in stressful situations, but do not trust the caregivers who could offer them comfort. This problem escalates further if the caregiver is entirely unavailable or unresponsive when the child exhibits fear. Research suggests that these children are most at risk for later behavioral problems, including clinical levels of aggression and hostility.

Disrupted Early Development: Development is greatly influenced by experiences during the first five years of life. Because of this, young children who experience prolonged exposure to IPV can struggle with their emotional development, such as the ability to express emotions, accurately interpret the emotions of others, regulate their own emotions, show empathy, and develop an attachment to a caregiver. Other common effects of witnessing IPV as a young child include Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), eating problems, sleep disturbances, lack of typical responses to adults, and loss of previously acquired developmental skills.

This is especially true for children who witnessed IPV between the ages of 6- to 18-months, whose frontal lobes in the brain undergo rapid development at this time. During this time, young children rely on caregivers to respond to their needs in predictable, sensitive ways and to provide a safe and predictable environment in which they can explore. These things lay the foundation for healthy emotional regulation and development.

It is important to note that not all young children who witness IPV will be negatively affected and there are ways to reduce the effects of exposure to IPV. This next section will discuss ways to minimize the effects of a child’s exposure to IPV and suggest ways to get them help.

How Can I Help My Child Who Has Been Exposed to IPV?

Get Out of the Abusive Situation: First and foremost, if you and your child are currently in an abusive situation, then get out safely. Go somewhere safe, such as a trusted friend’s house, a family member’s home, or a domestic violence shelter, such as the ones operated through the YWCA. Legal advocacy centers, shelters, and domestic violence service agencies are all good resources for addressing your unique safety challenges. Research indicates that children experience increasingly more negative effects when their exposure to IPV is increasingly severe and/or prolonged. Some of those negative effects are lessened or erased when children are removed from the abusive situation and placed in a safe environment.

Foster a Strong and Protective Relationship with Your Child: It is essential that your child is able to develop a strong, long-term relationship with you. But another thing you could do to help your child recover from witnessing IPV is facilitate another positive, caring, and protective adult in his or her life. This adult might be your child’s teacher, church leader, or extended family member.

Child and Family Therapies: There are a wide variety of counseling and mental health interventions available to families affected by domestic violence. The best choice of treatment depends on your child’s age, the nature and severity of the traumatic reaction, the circumstances of your family, and the availability of other supports. Overall, therapy can give your child a chance to talk about and make sense of his or her experiences in the presence of a caring and neutral counselor. Group therapy, individual therapy, and joint treatment with a parent are all options. Here are some specific types of therapy that your child might benefit from:

  • Child-Parent Psychotherapy (CPP): CPP works with you (the non-offending parent) and your young child (under the age of five). CPP is delivered in weekly child-parent sessions that are guided by child-parent interaction and child’s free play. This type of intervention is designed to support appropriate interactions between you and your child and to help both of you understand and work through the trauma you have experienced.
  • Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT): TF-CBT is a counseling intervention that focuses on the reduction of PTSD symptoms through individual therapy sessions for children, ages 3-18 years old, individual sessions with a parent, and joint parent-child sessions. TF-CBT might be most beneficial if your child has witnessed severe, prolonged IPV and has been significantly affected by the violence.
  • Cognitive-Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools (CBITS): CBITS was developed for children who have witnessed violence (including domestic violence). This classroom-based intervention uses a skills-based approach to help children in grade school process traumatic memories, express their grief, learn relaxation skills, challenge upsetting thoughts, and improve social problem solving.

After getting to the safe house, Margaret and her children took part of a domestic abuse recovery program that is similar to the interventions described above. The counselors gave them tools to cope and overcome the trauma they had witnessed; they eventually got that light back in their eyes and they felt free to live.

If you are in an abusive situation, please talk to someone and get help. It is never too late to get help for yourself, your children, or other loved ones.

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