Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Abuse, children, and dating violence

According to one estimate, 15 million kids live in a home in which one partner beat another in the last year, and in half these homes, the violence was serious (and in half the homes, the kids were abused too). The presence of children in the home can increase the violence, especially during pregnancy, when young children monopolize Mom’s attention, and again in the teen years when the issues of teen life occupy a lot of Mom’s attention. Children do their best to tune out the violence, but by the time they are teens, they get dragged into the fray and end up taking sides. And if Daddy is molesting his daughter as well as beating his wife, then the mother is dealing not only with violence but also with guilt. And DV victims often resist depriving the children of their fathers, which is really the wrong way to look at it – research has showed that kids correctly value safety and stability over the classic Ozzie-and-Harriet two parent system. And the kicker: kids who stay in abusive homes are more likely to become abusers themselves. On the plus side, there are times when a survivor decides that it's time to get out, specifically because of the children's safety.

A recent study proved that when children are exposed to domestic violence, it can damage them so severely that it makes permanent changes to their brains, just as trauma affects war veterans; the kids are also more susceptible to mental problems later, such as depression and anxiety disorders.

Signs of abuse at home: insomnia, fear of sleep, nightmares, headaches, stomachaches, asthma, ulcers, fights, tantrums, withdrawal, low energy, isolation, stealing, bedwetting, eating disorders, fear of going to school or leaving Mom alone, talk of suicide. Also injuries and absences; demanding attention; perfectionism.

Signs of neglect: malnutrition, bad hygiene, sleepiness, illness, and low parent involvement.

Sex abuse signs: fear of people and places, clinging, irritation, anxiety, habit regression (thumbsucking), inappropriate behavior/touching, change in appetite, scary drawings, freaking out on places she might be touched or talking about it; coming and going from school at odd times, hostility and disruption, running away, substance abuse, sex issues, withdrawal, nightmares, bedwetting, aggressive play, bribing for friendships, stealing, hitting, lack of friends.

Ask the victim: has abuser affected your child, hurt them, threatened them, hurt you in front of them, yelled at you loud enough for them to hear? Has the child tried to protect you, or been injured? Is the child afraid to leave you alone, or to be alone with the abuser? What does the child think of life at home, and would they like it to change?

If the DV survivor is abusing the children herself, she should get help, but she should also know that, depending on local law, mandated reporters (doctors, nurses, police, teachers etc) are required to go to the authorities if they even suspect child abuse. Still, it may do better to be proactive and take these issues to the authorities, to show you're looking out for the interests of the children. It really depends on the situation and the law.

If you leave the abuser, figure out a safe way to either take the children with you, or stash them somewhere safe.

School: tell the homeroom teacher and guidance counselor what is up; vary your route and schedule for delivering the kids to school, and switch schools if need be.

If you think the abuser could try to grab the kids: give any restraining orders to the school, babysitter, day care, coach; give them a photo of the abuser (and information about his car), and tell them who has permission for pickups and warn them not to give out addresses or phone numbers (consider using a password for releasing the kids by phone). Get your kids ID’ed with the police. Red-flag the names of the kids with the State Department if there’s a chance the abuser could try to take them out of the country. FPLS, within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, helps find stolen kids.

Ask the child, if the situation calls for it: what is good and bad about life at home, who makes the rules and what happens when you break them, what happens when parents argue or are angry (and what do you do), are you afraid, and do you have someone to talk to? Listen and validate.

Tell your children that violence is never right, even when someone they care about is being violent. Tell them that neither you nor they are at fault or cause the violence. Teach them never to interfere when the adults fight: go somewhere safe and call 911. Tell them about all the other people they can go to, especially at school: teacher, nurse, guidance counselor etc.

Teach the kids a code which signals that they should leave the house or get help.

Teach your kids the escape plan and practice it with them (a hidey-hole, a neighbor’s house), unless you think they will tell the abuser. Give them a plan they can use if you’re not there.

If they’re old enough, give them a cellphone and teach them to call the police, work, friends, to include collect calls. Teach them not to give out addresses or phone numbers, and teach them to tell a teacher if the abuser shows up at school.

Make sure that teachers, guidance counselors, coaches, babysitters etc all know the rules about handing the kids over to someone not authorized; use a password if need be, give everyone the restraining order complete with picture of him and description of the car. Make sure they all know not to give away your address or phone number.

There is always the possibility that a child will give away the game by contacting the abuser himself (relatives can cause the same problem). You might consider letting the children write letters to the abuser, so you can control things better.

Each year, 1 in 11 teens are victims of physical dating abuse. Other studies show at least 25% of teenagers have been in violent relationships. One in five high school girls physically or sexually abused by dating partner.

Signs that your daughter may be in an abusive relationship: if you’re trying to spot the abusive teen, look for the “Actor” who can be persuasive and likeable in public and when he first meets his victim, but also you see public insults and belittling, jealousy, the assertion that her parents don’t like him, controlling, checking up on her, sarcasm, ridicule, laughing at her, smirking, eye-rolling, insults, interrupting, ignoring, walking away when she’s talking, swearing, shouting, intimidation, threats, throwing things, breaking things, pushing, shoving, pointing, waving his fist, violence, injuries.

And this is what the victim looks like: excusing behavior, apologizing, losing interests in hobbies, isolation, injuries, absences.

If you’re a girl and you think your friend is being abused, be supportive but not judgmental. The message should be – “I’m listening, I’m there for you, I won’t tell until you say so, here’s what I see and how it’s affecting you; I can help.” Don’t be judgmental, don’t shame her, don’t give her ultimatums.

If you’re a guy and you think you’re friend is abusing his girlfriend, lay it on the line: “What you’re doing is wrong, I’m not just going to sit here and watch it, you could be arrested for this crime, talk to somebody about it.” Don’t make him feel ashamed of himself necessarily, but give him a nudge in the right direction.

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