By Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
Public attention to domestic violence tends to focus on the immediacy of the
problem. In other words when the average persons thinks about domestic violence,
thoughts go to the fright of the victim in the situation and physical harm caused.
Media attention often reinforces the present context of the violence and perhaps
the criminal aspect and legal outcome. Little consideration is given to the
emotional and psychological aftermath. The emotional and psychological aftermath
can last years to a lifetime and affects not only the target of the violence
but also the myriad of family members and relationships.
When children are involved, the aftermath can fracture or mal-align parent/child
relationships in a manner that can continue to perpetuate distress for all involved.
In many instances children share in the trauma of the violent event. They witness
it, observe the aftermath of harm to the parent or environment or are left to
cope with the emotional and psychological distress of the violated parent. Further,
their care can be affected by the violated parent who traumatized, may in some
cases be thus over-protective and in other cases unable to meet the emotional
needs of the child in view of their own emotional dishevelment. Such children
whose emotional and psychological care is altered in this manner develop problems
in their own right ranging from fears and worries to lacking a secure sense
of self and worth. In turn, their emotional and psychological issues manifest
in behavior at home and school next feeding into a cascade of more problems
for the affected parent.
If the parental relationship continues where violence is a feature, children
may learn that violence is a reasonable strategy to achieve goals and hence
become violent themselves. Alternately, some children learn to be submissive
and avoid conflict as a strategy to minimize risk of perceived violence and
thus withdraw from meaningful participation where reliance on others is necessary.
Further, some children may align with the violated parent, believing it is their
responsibility to keep that parent from harm. They may feel a need to remain
at home to keep their parent safe or suffer distraction at school as they worry
about the safety of the parent at home. Other children may in fact align with
the perpetrator and participate in the violation of the affected parent. These
children grow to become bullies in their own right whose behavior the violated
parent cannot control and whose behavior is reinforced by the perpetrator.
If the parental relationship ends, children may be subject to custody and access
disputes locking them into an ongoing parental conflict. Some children will
seek relief themselves from the perpetrator. However, the perpetrator may not
believe or accept that their child is uncomfortable, scared, upset or angry
with them. Promises of better behavior are met with skepticism. Children may
naturally align with the violated parent in view of that parent’s distress
and be forever unforgiving to the perpetrator. Efforts by the perpetrator to
reconcile with the child directly may therefore prove unsuccessful. The child
may be influenced directly or indirectly by the affected parent or in his or
her own right may reasonably be forever fearful and suspicious of the perpetrator.
In more extreme cases, due to size differential and the relative maturity of
the child, the child may harbor feelings and thoughts of the perpetrator as
quite larger than life. Fears, real and/or imagined, may intrude their conscious
and unconscious mind causing them to hide or avoid detection by the perpetrator.
Their behavior can become organized by these fears and affect all manner of
relationships thereafter as well as school and then vocational participation
The impact of domestic violence is not restricted to the violent act and physical
harm caused. The impact of domestic violence thus reaches to immediate and extended
family. As affected persons interact with the world, they too carry the aftermath
with them and through their interactions, into the rest of the world. The impact
of domestic violence next shows itself through fractured and altered relationships
and learned behaviors of the affected persons who in turn make their imprint