One of Indiana congressman Dan Burton’s earliest memories is hearing his mother being beaten by his father. He was five or six years old, he writes, when he was awakened during the middle of the night by loud noises:
I heard the sound of furniture being shoved across the room and a lamp crashing to the floor. Then I heard my mother’s bloodcurdling scream. Every nerve in my body stood on end. Terrified, I lay there thinking, “My God, it’s happening again.” For almost a decade, my father beat my mother nearly every week. Anything seemed to set him off: jealousy, rage over something that hadn’t gone his way. He’d start by saying horrible things to her. He’d rip her clothes off and throw her down. Sometimes he literally knocked her unconscious. Afterwards, her face and eyes would be swollen and bruised. He’d put wet cloths on her face to wake her up. I’d hear him consoling her, saying he was sorry, that it would never happen again. But of course it did.
Burton’s story is a familiar one to the estimated 3 million to 10 million children who witness family violence in their homes every year. Although parents may try to hide the fights and beatings from their families, the children inevitably know what is happening. One child therapist compares children to a “highly sensitive recording device” that is “capable of remembering the abuse that occurs in his or her home” whether or not “he or she has witnessed it directly and whether or not abuse is openly discussed.”
Many battered spouses rationalize their decision to stay with their abusers for “the good of the children.” They believe that their children are better off emotionally and financially if the parents stay together, even if one of the parents is abusive. However, researchers have found that children exposed to domestic violence often suffer physical and psychological trauma as a result.
Children who witness family violence are themselves frequently victims of child abuse. Sociologists Murray A. Straus and Richard J. Gelles surveyed over 6,000 families and discovered that 50 percent of the men who battered their wives also abused their children. An earlier study by William Stacy and Anson Shupe found that child abuse was 15 times more likely to occur in families with a history of domestic violence.
Domestic violence advocates have long known that children of abusive parents often grow up to be abusive in their own relationships. According to Straus and Gelles, “the learning experience of seeing your mother and father strike one another is more significant that being hit yourself.” They contend that boys who see their fathers beating their mothers learn that violence is an acceptable way to deal with anger and frustrations, that women are not worthy of respect, and that it is permissible to beat them. In Behind Closed Doors, Straus and Gelles state that boys who have witnessed domestic abuse between their parents are three times more likely to grow up and abuse their own wives than boys from nonviolent homes.
Likewise, the two researchers argue that experiencing and observing violence teaches girls that violence equals love—that being loved by someone also means being hit by them. They note that girls who grow up witnessing battering are also more likely to be abused as adults.
Being exposed to domestic violence may also cause behavioral and emotional problems in some children. Researchers who have studied the effects of domestic violence on children have found that it tends to make them aggressive and antisocial. Children who witness parental violence frequently act out against their younger or weaker siblings and classmates, and sometimes even against their mothers. A child’s anxiety about parental violence may also be exhibited through general fearfulness, nightmares, confusion regarding parental loyalties, feelings of powerlessness, difficulty concentrating and poor school performance, substance abuse, running away from home, sexual promiscuity, and physical reactions such as stomach cramps, headaches, sleeping and eating disorders, and frequent illness.
Children in violent homes are also susceptible to feelings of low self-esteem, shame, guilt, and high levels of stress due to their beliefs that the violence is their fault, that they should be able to stop the beatings, and that they must keep the beatings a secret. Marya Grambs, who grew up watching her father beat up her mother, explains the confusion she felt over her parents’ fights:
At some point in the fights, [my father] would say, “if you say one more word, I’ll hit you.” And then my mother, by now pretty upset, would say something, and then he would throw her down, kick her, slap her, punch her, pull her hair.
As a child always listening to the fights in the stairway leading to their bedroom, I would try out figure out who was right and who was wrong. I never could. He always seemed so right, so logical. Why did she say that one last thing? . . . I couldn’t understand that the excessiveness of his reaction was what was wrong.
Therapists and researchers are quick to point out that not all children exhibit these problematic behaviors and emotions, and not all actions and feelings are exhibited in each child. Generally, the extent of a child’s physical and psychological trauma is dependent on the child’s age during the abuse and the length and severity of the abuse. Experts agree that the less violence a child sees and experiences, and the younger the child is, the less likely it is that he or she will develop problems later in life or continue the cycle of violence as an adult.
The problem of child witnesses to domestic violence— who may themselves continue the cycle of violence as adults —is an important issue in the debate over domestic violence. In Domestic Violence: Opposing Viewpoints, the authors examine the severity and prevalence of domestic violence and ways to prevent it in the following chapters: Is Domestic Violence a Serious Problem? What Factors Contribute to Domestic Violence? Are Legal Remedies Against Domestic Violence Just and Effective? How Can Society Help Victims of Domestic Violence? The viewpoints in this anthology offer insights into the motivations of batterers as well as solutions to end the violence.