Children of domestic violence

Domestic violence within families has a profound effect on children’s emotional development and attachment.

When you’re four or five and you’re very small and every night is filled with the sounds of arguments, the screaming, the hitting and the crying seem to go on for ever. At least until it’s your turn and then it’s just say and do anything for survival. Sorry for the way you hold your fork. Sorry for looking at him in that way. Sorry that you interrupted his dinner. So when you get hit and your mother throws herself at him you know that she’ll take the pain for you and you sneak off to your room. Later, drunk, he makes one of his regular little visits to your bedroom and you know he’ll hurt you and you know you can’t tell your mother because he says he’ll kill her if you do.

In fact your mum’s in not much of a state to help anyway as, between them ,they get through a bath full of booze every week. The fear and the pain are so regular that the human brain has some of its own defence mechanisms. Crudely speaking, it shuts down and hides away the terrible memories as the only way to survive and so, when, years later the boy is 16, homeless, living off his wits and never seeing his family any more, his life is dominated by survival. He has little or no fear, no love, no rules, no boundaries and a deep and sometimes uncontrollable rage. All these years when parents and other important adults should have been teaching him compassion, how to love and how to live easily with the world, were hijacked by terror and the backdrop of domestic abuse.

Now, he functions with little or no emotion and few worries about authority. He’s probably drinking quite heavily and taking what drugs he can to try and totally blank out the world. For someone with no sense of responsibility to the rest of the community, crime is just a way of passing time, getting material goods as a means to an end and holds no fear of being caught. Violence is a learned way of exerting control and dominating your environment and casual violence is just a part of everyday life. So a stabbing here or a beating there are no big deal. Our teenager allows himself no real depth of feeling so guilt or shame or responsibility don’t enter into it as they were never taught in the first place.

Let’s imagine that the man who abused him was mum’s boyfriend and he had scars on his face, was quite tall, always wore dark clothes and always told him how bad he was before ‘punishing’ him.

All these years later he sits at a crowded bus stop and a man with scars on his face, wearing dark clothes stands beside him in such a way that he towers over him and, fatally, makes eye contact. All the suppressed rage of years bubbles up as all of these ‘triggers’ come together. He loses control and screams incoherent abuse at him which causes the man to shout back that yobs like him are ruining the country and should be put down. At which point the red mist comes down, the knife comes out and another statistic is created. He stands there wondering what’s happened until he gets arrested and then through remand, court and finally detention all he hears is how bad he is.

Much of this thought was provoked by listening to Camila Batmanghelidjh who runs KidsCompany in South London, when she spoke at a day devoted to studying domestic violence. She and her team have worked with thousands of homeless, abused teenagers over the last 11 years, most of whom have violence or the threat of violence as part of their daily lives. It’s not been a picnic as most are homeless, heavy drink and drug users and have no fear of authority. The idea of stabbing someone else is an accepted part of life. Power and control are all that’s left and not many imagine a long life.

There is no magic bullet but there also is little or no confrontation. The organisation condemns domestic violence and anything illegal but offers a listening ear as well as food and a safe place to tell your story. Therapeutic help is available when trust has been established.

Many people complain (me included) that the victims of crime get too little help and attention. But, like any widespread medical threat, you can’t just treat the symptoms. In fact about 50% of all cases of child abuse have domestic violence as an ingredient of their lives and if we had more rigorous reporting and something like a zero tolerance of both with neighbours, friends and extended families reporting children and women at risk, then maybe we might prevent more children who kill being created. Anyway, you can’t say that the 4 or 5 year old is not a victim. It’s just that some victims seem to have a sell by date. I heard this talk a few years ago and recently heard the same information repeated as if nothing changes. Today we hear how the police, in order to rationalise resources, are reclassifying missing children into categories that include many who will not be looked for with much effort. The thousands of feral children hidden in our communities highlight one of this country’s shameful secrets and not nearly enough is happening to deal with it.

(This is an article I wrote a while ago but still feel is very relevant now – what are your thoughts on this?)

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