Children who witness physical, verbal and emotional abuse between their parents are the silent victims of domestic violence.
Between 3.3 and 10 million children witness domestic violence each year.
Gina Elliott, program coordinator of the Time Out domestic violence shelter, recently returned from a conference in Phoenix on the impact of domestic violence on children.
"They are the silent victims -- children watch, they see, and they don't know what to do with it," Elliott said.
"Perhaps the most severe trauma that can be inflicted on a child is to experience or witness violence at the hands of their caregivers," Time Out Executive Director Darlene Curlee said.
Elliott, Curlee, and the staff at Time Out, see, on a daily basis, the effect on children who live in violent households.
"Children deal with it in different ways," Elliott said. "We see a lot of quiet, timid children. We see angry children who throw fits and do what they saw Daddy do."
Elliott said that because children love and want to protect their parents, it puts them in a difficult position.
"Children love their parents -- it's hard when you love your daddy and your mommy and you see Daddy hurting Mommy.
"Kids also feel the need to protect the parent," Elliott said. "When law enforcement steps in, it's real hard, because they are trying to make the situation better and safer, but a child watches a parent get arrested."
According to Curlee, a lot of intervention has to be done to help children who have left violent homes.
"Children who are witnessing abuse in their home are being as abused as a child who is suffering abuse themselves," Curlee said.
Curlee said if some kind of intervention does not take place, a high percentage of the children will grow up to be abusers or victims.
"This is a socially learned behavior," Curlee said. "They see this as a normal behavior until they are shown a functional and appropriate behavior."
The shelter offers groups in which children can express themselves in a
safe environment. Children's Coordinator Lorraine Green, gives group -- as well as one-on-one -- attention to children staying in the shelter and those residing outside the shelter as well. "When the children start drawing pictures or playing games, they begin to talk about what is going on in their home," Curlee said. "They are allowed to express themselves and Lorraine lets them lead the conversation. She asks them questions like, ‘How did that make you feel?'."
Allowing children to safely express their feelings and have their experience validated can help heal some of the scars.
"The emotional and verbal abuse that some of these children have experienced is something they'll carry with them for a lifetime, unless there is intervention," she said.
Curlee said a huge part of what the shelter tries to do is show the children a different way of life.
"When they act out, rather than reacting to what they've done, we explain to them that it is not appropriate behavior and then we show them what an appropriate behavior would be," Curlee said.
Critical to this intervention is consistency.
"Consistency is so important," Curlee said. "In an abusive home, nobody is ever consistent. Children really don't know what is expected of them because the desires of the parent change all the time."
Renowned psychologist John Bowlby studied the impact of inconsistency of caregiver behavior and its effect on children. Bowlby found that a child who lives in an environment where a parent's reaction is erratic, the effect is a very anxious child who only knows the world as a treacherous and unsafe place.
"Long-term exposure to an inconsistent home usually leads to a dysfunctional adult," Curlee said.
According to the National Organization for Women Legal Defense and Education Fund, the following are possible effects of witnessing abuse:
- Children who have witnessed domestic violence have lower verbal, cognitive and motor skills than those children who have not.
- Children often display the following indirect symptoms from witnessing domestic violence: sleep disorders, headaches, stomach ache, diarrhea, ulcers, asthma, bed-wetting, depression, truancy and learning problems.
- Depression, hopelessness and other forms of emotional distress among teenagers are strongly associated with exposure to domestic violence in the home.
- Domestic violence is found in 20 to 40 percent of families of chronically violent adolescents.
- 75 percent of boys who witness domestic violence have been found to have demonstrable behavior problems.
- Growing up in a violent home has been correlated with substantially higher levels of serious crime convictions later in life.
- A child's risk of being physically abused, increases by 40 to 60 percent if spousal abuse is occurring.
One statistic from a fact sheet from the White Mountain S.A.F.E. House in Pinetop said that 63 percent of all boys between the ages of 11 and 20 who commit murder, kill the man who abuses their mother.
"If the cycle is not broken somewhere, these children become adults who reach out to other dysfunctional people," Curlee said.
"Unless they are shown a different way of living, violence and abuse will be what's familiar and normal to them -- they grow up and become abusers or victims -- or possibly both," Curlee added.
For more information on domestic violence or the groups offered at the shelter, call Time Out at (928) 472-8007.