One act of kindness.
One changed perspective.
One acknowledgement of pain.
One offer of support and encouragement.
Both in my work as a child psychotherapist and personally as a survivor of childhood abuse, I’ve seen what a difference these “ones” can make to a child who is living with domestic violence. Children are resilient. They can survive and even thrive after unthinkable trauma. But that resilience generally comes from having a caring adult in their life who supports them and helps them make sense of the situation.
For me, that person was my paternal grandmother, a hearty, hardworking, no-nonsense New Englander who never complained despite the abuse she received from my grandfather. She sheltered me and gave me tools to avoid his and my father’s wrath. But more importantly, she was a kind, gentle woman who loved me unconditionally, encouraged me, and helped me feel safe.
Children’s responses to domestic abuse are varied and impacted by numerous factors. Age, birth order, temperament, innate coping strategies, the severity of the abuse and the relationship with the abuser can all impact a child’s reaction. Some children find ways to cope and may not show any outward signs of distress, others may exhibit extreme behavioral changes, and yet others may fall somewhere in between. Withdrawal, clinging, tantrums, sleep disturbances and increased fear and anger are some of the reactions that can emerge at home or at school. Depression, anxiety, difficulty concentrating and hypervigilance can impact academic and social functioning. Lifelong health or behavior problems often result.
As the oldest child, I shouldered the responsibility of protecting not only my mother but my younger siblings as well. I would take my younger sister into a closet to escape my father, something she experienced as a fun game, thankfully unaware of my more serious motivations. Taking on this caretaker role is a common coping strategy, especially of eldest children. It is fueled by the mistaken assumption that they are to blame and that by understanding triggers and changing their behavior they can predict and mitigate the abuse.
Another strategy that children adopt is to become “bad” to divert attention away from the abused parent in an effort to protect them. Still others identify with the abuser and become disrespectful and aggressive toward the non-violent parent. All children receive flawed messages about relationships that may be interpreted in a variety of ways. Many repeat the domestic abuse in their later relationships, either as the abuser or the abused, believing that problems are solved by either aggression or passivity. It’s what they’ve learned and they don’t have a framework for anything different.
Others grow into their futures determined to do things differently. And that determination and resilience is often due to having had someone in their life — a parent, grandparent, teacher or coach — who acknowledged the reality of their situation, who showed them a different way, and who helped them feel safe and secure. My grandmother was the initial “one” who protected, guided and encouraged me. Others would follow, reflecting my strengths and reinforcing the seeds of resilience that my grandmother had sown.
Working with children and teens I’ve heard many stories, similar to mine, of people who made a difference to them when they were a child. Often it was a relationship with a teacher for a year or a family member or friend for many years. In other instances, it was as simple as a random kind word or gesture. There are many circumstances in our lives today in which we feel powerless, including trying to change the abusive behavior of some adults. Nevertheless, we all have the capability to protect, support and validate a child who needs that “Powerful One” in their lives.
*If you concerned that a friend, family member, coworker or someone else you know may be in an abusive relationship, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline.