The moment that you go on to a stage to give a speech, you feel your heart beating vehemently and your hands go numb. Or take the moment when your long-kept secret is unfolded. These moments of anxiety are short-lived, and by short-lived I mean they are trivial, compared to a kind of ceaseless, heavy, and obsessed anxiety. It comes to you not because you have done anything, like not doing well on an exam, that makes its arrival predictable, and there is no or few ways you can make it go away easily. You are forced to face it when deprived of proper tools, and try to survive, or not.
I am talking about the anxiety that is triggered by witnessing domestic violence, as a child. It may seem distant, or even strange to think about violence in a family for those that are lucky enough to be protected from it. But for those who are less so, violence is one of their siblings—the kind of sibling that is a million times worse than your little sister when she tears up your notebook. Home, the word that is supposed to mean love and warmth for children, becomes a frustrating, negative, and intimidating one. People may change, and family may become less frustrating and happier at the end of the day, yet the repercussion of violence for children is a crazy dog unleashed.
A girl, let’s call her L, once told me her story.
“I was always in my room when they fought, doing my homework or sleeping. The fight always started from a conversation between my parents. The conversation always ended up on the issue of money. My father was impatient and very poor at self-control, and my mother was blunt. When my father raised his voice, I was either awakened in panic or ready to hear a bloody fight. I still have a panic attack now, which looms from the bottom of my spine and hits my stomach, when my father raises his voice, even though they stopped fighting long ago……For a long time I couldn’t talk to males. Boys. Young men. Middle-aged men. Seniors. I expected violence and hostility every time I talked to other males. I could talk to my grandfather, because he is very kind and nice. I was also insecure. I was afraid that I would lose my family, as well as my toys, pens, and everything I relied on in the house. That’s why I value what I have so much right now.”
“You won’t understand”, she added, “These feelings are unbelievable if you have never been through them”.
But I wanted to understand her and people like her that witnessed (seeing or hearing) or experienced domestic violence as kids. According to futurewithoutviolence.org, more than 5 million children in the U.S were exposed to physical Intimate Partner Violence in 2012. Among all kids in the survey, about 1 out of 4 is exposed to family violence of all kinds, throughout their lifetime. L is not alone. Her “unique” anxiety is actually shared by many around us, but we are kept ignorant most of the time.
Anxiety is only part of the story. Kids like L are more likely than other children to suffer from cognitive, behavioral, social, and emotional problems. Children exposed to domestic violence are more likely to have a lagged cognitive development and perform worse at school. They are reported to have difficulty in trusting others. Some may be more likely to experience depression later in life. Boys exposed to domestic violence are more likely to engage in violence as adults, while girls when they grow up are more likely to be victims of violence (See more). These negative consequences create an unhealthy cycle that hinders general development of these children. What we should do for them should be more than pity—it is easy and kind to say “wow you have a miserable childhood. I am sorry”, but it is more helpful for people that have experienced domestic violence to receive love and support.
October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Take action and spread awareness. Volunteer in local organizations around you. Advocate. Host a workshop. Post on Facebook. Hug your friends. Show your love. There are plenty of things we can do together, and we should do it not only in October.
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
Futures Without Violence
The Effects of DV On Children
Domestic Violence and the Child Welfare System