The Dublin Declaration on Preventing Domestic, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence was adopted last Friday by 38 of the 46 countries represented at the Council of Europe, the leading human rights organization on the European continent.
This declaration commits these countries to a range of prevention initiatives to end domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. One of the obligations is to ensure that the child’s voice is heard in dealing with cases of domestic violence and other abuses affecting them. This is welcome. Without for a moment downplaying the impact of domestic violence on the person directly affected, the impact on children in the home can often be just as traumatic.
There is a wide range of research that highlights the impact of domestic violence (DV) on children and young people. It’s research that makes terrifying reading.
There are two main approaches to psychological research. Quantitative methods use surveys, questionnaires, and other measures to gather information from participants. This information or data is then statistically analyzed to help us spot differences and similarities between people, which, if consistently observable, could give us broader perspectives on what might be true of the population at large.
Qualitative methods, on the other hand, are usually one-to-one interview or focus group-based and give us insight into the lived experience of that person or group of people based on their descriptions of that experience. Qualitative research often provides us with the richest details about specific groups within our population, in their own words.
The qualitative research conducted with children and young people living with domestic violence between their parents shows us how important it is for their voice to be heard when it comes to assessing the impact on them and what they do then need support.
What emerges from this research is that there are several commonalities in children’s experiences. The first is that the nature, unpredictability, extreme, and compulsiveness of the violence they witnessed and sometimes suffered made it difficult for them to make any sense of it at all. In one study, a child described her father’s violence simply as “dangerous insanity.” Worse still, children have a constant feeling that the violence is “always there”. The fear of it was often in the background, even in a relatively safe environment like school. As one teenager put it, “You’ll never know what it’s like when you think that any day could be your last day.”
Family relationships are complex for children, often vacillating between anger and trust in their mother (who was usually their only support while living with violence at home). Relationships with fathers (mostly the violent ones) were also not easy, and children describe that their fathers were not always bad and that most of them wanted more control or choice over their contact with their fathers after moving on without them .
The emotion most frequently described by children in situations involving DV was fear. Fear for themselves, their siblings and their mothers. As one child puts it: “Insecure, scared all the time. I have not slept. I used to sleep at school.” Another pervasive feeling described by most children was that of fainting. Many of the children interviewed spoke of their distress at not being able to protect people. For example, one boy described: “I can’t do anything because I don’t go down and jump in the middle. I could get hurt.”
Some children take an active role in trying to minimize the violence. “I tried to stop him when he hit mum but no, he hit me instead.” But most realized it was up to adults to step in and stop the violence in their homes. However, talking to others about what happened was often risky, and some children described how this actually led to greater concerns for their safety.
Particularly relevant to the Dublin Declaration, many of the children interviewed for this research stressed that they wanted to be involved and informed about practical things such as their living arrangements and safety plans.
While I have gathered the many commonalities of children’s self-reported experiences, what is most insightful and disturbing about reading their accounts is how unique and varied their experiences are. Because they are individuals, they need an individual response that recognizes the often powerful, dynamic, explosive, and overwhelming nature of the violence they witness or directly experience. We have to listen carefully to the children, otherwise they will continue to suffer in their own four walls.
https://www.independent.ie/life/family/parenting/dr-david-coleman-it-is-crucial-that-the-voices-of-children-who-suffer-domestic-violence-be-heard-42040835.html dr David Coleman: It is vitally important that the voices of children who are victims of domestic violence are heard