The myths around domestic abuse are really unhelpful, but sadly they persist. We used to think that babies didn’t notice screaming and shouting — now we know they are the ones most severely affected. Their state of fear changes their brains. Being too young to process consciously they have night terrors, they experience difficulty attaching and bonding, and they develop a survival strategy as they grow up that is deeply disturbing for those around them. They are labelled as bad, secluded from school, and they end up with mental health problems at a rate higher than kids who are victims of physical violence.
We now know that unacknowledged pain can transform into violence, and so child victims of domestic abuse can become perpetrators of abuse. They discover that it feels better to punish others and they feel no remorse. This elicits a negative response from people everywhere they go so they grow up believing that no one likes them, and they get stuck in a pattern of proving they are bad and they don’t care. None of this is true — deep down they do care, they are in pain, but they are hopelessly lost.
Often they cut themselves or turn to suicide. In schools this is the elephant in the room, but there are now initiatives to help teachers understand the science behind toxic stress — the horrible effect that months or years of feeling unsafe has on a child’s body and mind. Simply Counselling, a Lottery funded domestic abuse centre in Plymouth, is single-mindedly pushing a biochemical understanding of toxic stress among its staff. Over the two years I worked there the training and intensive supervision it provides made me a firm believer in the central importance of neuroscience in therapy.
This all starts with trauma of some kind, which means any event encountered as an out of control, frightening experience that disconnects the child from safety, with no one to help them. “Abuse” doesn’t have to be aimed at the child for it to be harmful. It’s enough for the child to hear it. Sadly most definitions of domestic abuse fall a long way short of the reality. Women’s Aid says it’s a “gendered crime” in which “the vast majority of cases” are “experienced by women and perpetrated by men”. Not true: what about all the children? And the men? Every third victim of domestic violence is a man, and practically the same percentage of men as women are victims of severe acts of domestic violence.
Radical feminism has made it harder for people to empathise with boys and men. In April 2018 there were 913 boys and 27 girls in the secure estate (secure children’s homes, young offender institutions and secure training centres). When Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield and Dame Louise Casey decided to pay 10 of these tormented souls a visit “to learn about their lives before entering custody and understand the factors that led to them being imprisoned and what, if anything, could have been done to change their trajectory”, can you guess who they chose? All 10 were girls.
Children who end up in the secure estate, like their adult counterparts in prison, have often been in care. Many of them have experienced domestic abuse from a very young age which has left them in a permanent state of hypervigilance and toxic stress. They feel permanently unsafe and react to normal situations at school — being asked to sit still and concentrate — with apparently outrageous delinquency, and so they are excluded.
Although parents involved in domestic abuse often assume the kids didn’t hear anything, it’s usually a different story — they don’t miss a thing. As for the damage it does, the impact is even greater on children who hear domestic violence than those who hear and see it. The images the brain conjures up are more traumatising than the real thing, and these sensory images are laid down in the amygdala, the seat of the emotions, especially fear.
A baby within earshot of a horrible argument, either in a cot or in the womb, acquires a felt sense of violence that it can’t articulate. It’s stored away and harms the development of their brain and body. Children don’t ask for much: food, shelter, love and a sense of safety. When a child doesn’t feel safe it can affect their development in ways that might look like autism but that began as a healthy response to danger. The problem is the chronic nature of the perceived danger, which causes red alert mode to stay on for months or years, with the body pumping out adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol continuously.
This alarm is in the amygdala, which is located in the brain’s limbic system, the seat of attachment. Attachment is a really important part of this story. Our child victim of domestic abuse develops a negative attachment style that supports the core belief that “I’m unlovable, others will let me down, I am unvalued and ineffective”. We all know a child who prefers to sabotage a nice shared moment than risk losing control of their own negative narrative.
With the amygdala’s fear thermostat left in the red, the child’s capacity to learn is halted because they cannot access the frontal lobes for logical thinking. Double maths becomes impossible. It becomes difficult for them to think of themselves positively and they begin to judge their own behaviour without conscious thought. They’re on a hair trigger and they replace social engagement with defensive behaviour. If this happens before the age of four the developmental effects can be severe because the child struggles to make friends, which are a critical source of learning.
It’s very hard for a child to break out of this cycle. They sense danger everywhere, screening out the “safe” sounds of a teacher’s voice while they listen out for “dangerous” higher and lower tones. They misinterpret non-verbal cues from classmates and teachers as threatening looks. Their heart races, their palms sweat, they’re shaking. They can’t sit still. They are in agony from the minute they wake up each day to the minute they go to bed, and they often live like this for so long that they learn to cut off their sensations below the neck. They act like nothing is happening, and they collude in the narrative about them that parents, teachers and other children begin to repeat: they are naughty, bad, stupid, they just don’t care. But underneath they do care, they are in pain and they are waiting desperately for help.
And we know how to help. The long term impact of trauma is now understood thanks to the huge Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study in 1998 that followed more than 17,000 adults in the US. Many follow up studies, including two in England, have corroborated the findings: toxic stress caused by ACEs damages the function and structure of children’s developing brains, and people with four ACEs have a huge risk of adult onset of chronic health problems such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, suicide and alcoholism. An ACE could be physical, sexual and verbal abuse, physical and emotional neglect, a family member who is depressed, witnessing a mother or father being abused, losing a parent and exclusion at school. There are many more and the list is growing all the time.
There is a fix, and the science behind it is astonishing: telomeres hold the end of chromosomes together like the hard bits on the end of your shoelaces. We regenerate cells with our chromosomes but as we age they fray and the telomeres get shorter, so eventually we die. Children who have witnessed violence have shortened and fraying telomeres. However a substance called telomerase can repair the telomeres. It’s produced through enriched relationships, where the child is heard and received by an empathic adult who uses play and builds trust with them. Even kids with the highest ACE scores can protect themselves from adverse outcomes through access to a single adult offering empathy and support before the age of 18. This is the work that counsellors and psychotherapists do.