The forgotten victims of domestic abuse are the children like me who survived it

The long shadows of childhood abuse.
The long shadows of childhood abuse.
Image: Reuters/Neil Hall
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In 1962, my mother was living in New York’s East End Hotel, a residence for young women drawn to the city’s promise of adventure and romance. She was 22 years old, with hair she set in big curlers at night, false eyelashes, and sensible heels, and worked a secretary at a travel agency. At night, she would dress up and go out with friends to the theater, restaurants, and cocktail parties—including the party where she met a dashing young man who was also from the South. He was also Jewish, like her, and a medical resident. They made a stunning couple at their wedding, in 1964. Life couldn’t be more perfect, she thought.

Ten years later, she is crying and begging him to stop. The man she once worshipped, whose every word she hung on, is pushing her roughly against the kitchen counter, twisting one arm behind her back and slapping her across the face.

These are my parents.

In the 1970s, no one talked about what went on at home. Gloria Steinem founded Ms. Magazine in 1972 and Roe v. Wade was decided the year after. But at my house, my father ruled like a dictator and hurt the people he said he loved. If the police came, they soon left after murmuring quietly with him. Women and children did not come first.

Over 40 years later, the epidemic of domestic violence continues in households across the country—affecting women and men of all races, socioeconomic levels and sexual orientations. And for every woman who has been a victim of domestic abuse, there is a largely forgotten group: the children like me who live with their own legacy of pain, shame, and isolation. They are a generation wounded by the violence they witness between adults whose behavior confuses and frightens them.

All those years ago, I remember crouching beneath the kitchen table, crying at my father to stop. I was scared. I wanted to disappear, and I wanted to save my mother. I was nine years old. I’d hear a loud snap, the sound of a fist or kick to the wall. A muffled thud meant the blow had hit my mother instead.

My father waged this private and one-sided war for as long as I could remember. Two hours after these fights, however, the house was filled with different sounds: maybe love, maybe forgiveness, or simply relief.

It left me confused. How could this be love? Do my friends’ fathers do this too? Was it my fault, somehow? And the scariest thought of all: When would it happen again? Eventually, I decided that the best thing would be to go it alone.

So I packed my small flowered suitcase and hid it under the bed, sure that one night I would find the courage to leave. I thought I could live like the Boxcar children, who were featured in the books my father helped me check out from the library every Saturday. They seemed happy without parents. Or maybe Mr. Rogers would let me come stay with him.

Consequences that can last a lifetime

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), on average nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this adds up to more than 10 million women and men. Every nine seconds in the US a woman is assaulted or beaten, according to the NCADV.

Shelters, advocacy groups, police and legal aid, clinicians, and researchers have come together in recent years to try to stem the tide of domestic violence. Authors have written bookshelves full of books for women who are trying to leave an abuser, including Why Does He Do That: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by domestic violence expert and advocate Lundy Bancroft. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and so in October we wear purple.

For the children involved in these situations, however, awareness is lacking. And yet, there are many lasting effects on children who witness domestic abuse, according to Celia Trotta, a psychiatrist with Psychiatry Health in Short Hills, New Jersey. Trotta specializes in the treatment of adults who have a wide range of illnesses, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, personality disorders, and psychotic disorders.

Children who grow up witnessing domestic abuse experience effects that “include emotional problems (such as depression and anxiety), academic problems (outbursts in school or poor academic performance), and trauma symptoms,” Trotta says.

Living with the trauma of abuse like this may also be linked to the development of mental illness later in life. “Although the exact cause of most mental illnesses is not known,” Trotta explains, “it is believed that many conditions are caused by a combination of genetic, biological, psychological (such as witnessing or experiencing abuse), and environmental factors.”

Researchers have also found that children who have been exposed to this kind of violence often suffer the same consequences as children who have been directly abused themselves. In the July 2016 article “Children’s exposure to intimate partner violence: an overview,” published in the International Review of Psychiatry, a group of Canadian researchers found that “children’s exposure to intimate partner violence (IPV) is associated with significant emotional impairment and other deleterious consequences. It is increasingly recognized as a type of violence exposure with outcomes similar to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, and neglect.”

The Canadian study also found that childhood exposure to domestic abuse increases the risk for later victimization—and perpetration—of intimate partner violence.

Connecting the dots of trauma symptoms

As a young girl, I was comforted by books, food, and soccer. I tried to appear happy to fit in with my friends, and maybe I even succeeded. But inside my green and white bedroom with the princess bedspread, I hoarded food and forbidden chocolates, and repeatedly wrote numbers and words in specific patterns and for prescribed periods of time. I did this to block out the fighting I heard, and to deal with my fear. I continued these habits even after I left home. By the time I was in my late 20s and freed from my parents (who had recently and mercifully divorced), the damage done by their fighting and my exhausted coping mechanisms landed me in a psychiatric unit.

My brain was betraying me. Binging and purging weren’t working. Neither were meaningless hook-ups. I couldn’t think straight. My mind—typically so orderly—felt like it was full of holes and intrusive thoughts. And though I had been seeing both a therapist and a psychiatrist for panic attacks and anxiety, as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder, no medication seemed to work. Some even made me feel worse. My psychiatrist had been telling me about PTSD, and said that I had been in what she called a “combat” situation with my parents.

The breaking point finally came when I felt that I wanted to hurt myself.

The psychiatrist on duty the first night I checked into the unit assured me that I would be all right, but that “We need to get you on the right medication so your brain gets better.”

Eventually, it did. And, with the help of understanding therapists and doctors, as well as new coping strategies to replace the destructive ones, I began to heal.

I have hope that, in the future, survivors of similar trauma won’t be forced to go it alone for as long as I did. Clinicians have begun to recognize that the experience of witnessing this violence should be treated as a separate condition.

“Childhood domestic violence (CDV) gets lumped together with domestic violence and/or child abuse,” says Dr. Linda Olson, a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist in Atlanta who is also the chairwoman of the Georgia chapter of the Childhood Domestic Violence Association. “And it’s a real distinct and separate childhood adversity. Literally, it negatively rewires the brain.

“Parents often say, ‘oh, the kids don’t know what’s going on,’” Olson says. “I hear that universally. But kids feel what’s going on.”

Olson says that often a patient’s understanding of the impact of childhood domestic violence helps them begin to “connect the dots” of trauma symptoms. “The first step is awareness,” she says. “Then you can label and treat CDV. Most clinicians won’t ask the question ‘Did you grow up with childhood domestic violence?’ But we’re developing training programs to increase awareness so we can start treating it as a root cause instead of just treating the symptoms.”

Today, I’m grateful that I’ve had access to therapists and physicians who have helped me connect the dots. In the process, I’ve gained a new appreciation for our family of three. My father has chosen not to seek help or be a part of our lives. But my mother, brother, and I are fortunate. We have found a way to finally move on, together.