Domestic Violence is an ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience).
Domestic violence is defined by the ACE study as seeing your mother or stepmother often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her, sometimes or often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard, or ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife? And while the original ACE study was conducted in the 1990s and conducted with people born in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, questions about women abusing men or abuse in same-sex couples were not asked; it makes sense that the trauma inflicted on children would be similar.
Watching one person who you love and who is supposed to love you violently abuse someone else you love, you depend on, and who loves you is terrifying. It shatters a child’s belief that they can be safe in their home or in their skin. A parent who is being abused is very stressed and is unlikely to be able to function as well as a parent as they otherwise would. Sometimes children will try to defend their victimized parent, which places them at horrible physical and emotional risk. Sometimes they mimic the abusive parent’s words and actions, which can cause guilt and habituate them to behave violently. And this is assuming the abuser isn’t doing anything else to directly abuse the child and that the victim is still functioning as a parent.
It’s important to understand that there is always more to the relationship than physical abuse. Abusers are very good at manipulating their partners, and they typically isolate their victims, control their finances and use massive emotional abuse to make their partners believe they are reliant on their abuser. This makes leaving difficult.
Domestic violence seems to be caused by an individual’s need for power and control, which is often tied to their trauma history, and society’s misogynistic tendencies. Abusers form a belief system that revolves around their being entitled to certain things from their partner and allowing them to use force, violence, or coercion to get what they want. While an abuser’s experience with trauma is likely to play a role in their desire to abuse, it’s important to note that treating any underlying trauma, mental illness, or addictions that may be diagnosed in an abuser will not stop them from being abusive. And domestic abusers rarely stop being abusive.
Primary prevention of domestic violence and primary prevention of domestic violence as an ACE are both critical. Domestic violence can be reduced in communities by taking a “zero tolerance” approach where police, DA, judges, parole, probation, and the DV support community work together to prioritize the maximum enforcement of existing domestic violence laws. This reinforces the point that abusers choose to abuse; if they fear significant consequences, they are less likely to make that choice. Our approach is The Quincy Solution, a set of practices developed in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Specific steps can be taken to screen pregnant women and new mothers for domestic violence, and if they are being abused, they can be given service referrals. Maternal Home Visiting programs typically screen for domestic violence, and given the long-term relationship the visitor builds with the family, they get a very good idea of a family’s actual dynamics.
Victims who are ready to leave need comprehensive services available, including shelter that can accommodate any children they may have, financial support, legal and logistical support to disentangle themselves from any contracts they may be in with their abuser, and therapy for her and their children. She may also need parenting support as traumatized children can become more challenging to parent, especially if the abuser made them say or do abusive things to their mother. It is also crucial for service providers and legislators to ensure that the abuser cannot use custody of their children as something to maintain control of their victim.
More about ACEs
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The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Study shows how childhood trauma leads to shorter, sicker lives. We protect children and prevent ACEs. Take action now, you can help us break the cycle of abuse.
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