VICENZA -- Domestic Violence Awareness Month reminds us all of the importance of feeling safe in intimate relationships.

The need to feel safe applies as much to adults as it does to children. Children don't need to be the direct targets of violence to suffer from its consequences. In fact, children who witness domestic violence can be severely impacted, sometimes more so than if they were the victims of violence themselves. Awareness and education are among the first steps towards preventing violence in families.

The Army Community Service Family Advocacy Program provides services that promote positive family interactions, educates the community on issues related to violence, and provides help and support for anyone in a difficult or violent situation.

Domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence, is physical or sexual violence, stalking or psychological aggression by a current or former intimate partner such as a spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend, dating partner, or ongoing sexual partner. This violence can take place in person and/or in a digital space. Intimate partner violence affects millions of Americans each year.

For example, one in four women and one in seven men will experience severe physical intimate partner abuse at some point in their lifetime. Intimate partner violence is nothing new, but we are increasingly becoming more aware of how often it occurs, what the early warning signs are, and how to educate and support potential perpetrators and victims.

A recent awareness effort is bringing attention to the incidence and extreme danger of strangulation. Unfortunately, strangulation is a common form of intimate partner physical abuse and is extremely dangerous. It only takes five to 10 seconds for someone to lose consciousness, and just a few minutes to cause death. Victims can even seem okay immediately after, but die days or weeks after the attack. And often, there are little to no external signs of injury.

Beyond the dangers faced by the direct victim of intimate partner violence, there is the negative impact such violence has on children.

Children form their ideas about people and the world as they grow. Those who witness domestic violence learn that violence and fear are a normal and expected part of life. Children can feel traumatized, scared, confused, and may feel as though the abuse is their fault.

Many people may believe that young children are in some way immune to the negative impacts of violence because they are too young to understand what's going on. Unfortunately, the opposite is true.

In infancy and early childhood, children need to learn to feel secure and safe, and they need to learn to trust the people around them.

Young children are also extremely aware of the emotions of others around them. If they are surrounded by fear and anxiety, that's what they'll learn and those are the pathways that will develop in their brain.

Brain development in children of all ages that witness violence will start to wire differently. These children will learn to expect danger, and their "fight or flight" mechanism will be in a constant state of high alert.

In fact, trauma triggers the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that regulates the fight or flight response to danger and helps a person decide whether to stay and fight a threat or flee from it.
This response can make children hypersensitive to anything that happens to them. They may perceive regular social interactions or challenges as threatening and react with fear, aggression, or withdrawal.

Continued exposure to violence can truly change the brain's chemistry, which can have devastating effects on a child's development.

This exposure to violence in childhood is associated with a large range of long-term consequences. Young children may have difficulty forming trusting relationships; school age children may develop serious behavior problems; and adolescents may run away or engage in behaviors that deposit them in the juvenile justice system.

Children who witness violence develop unhealthy coping behaviors and are more likely to be fearful, are twice as likely to develop depression, are three times as likely to develop an anxiety disorder, and may be more likely to attempt suicide.Finally, children who witness violence in the home grow up to repeat what they experienced growing up. They are more likely to become victims or perpetrators of intimate partner violence in their own relationships.

Domestic violence often starts early as teenagers are experimenting in their first romantic relationships. Early abuse can set teens up for continued abuse throughout their lifetime.

Give teens some extra help and guidance in defining the characteristics of a healthy relationship and identifying the signs of a relationship heading towards abuse, and then keep the lines of communication open. And importantly, set a good example in your own relationship with your partner and your teenage children.

There are also some good online resources such as www.loveisrespect.org that can help teens figure out what is healthy and what is not, and what to do if they find themselves in an abusive or potentially abusive relationship.

Anyone in a violent relationship or who knows a child who may be witness to violence in the family is highly encouraged to seek help.

FAP can provide many different levels of assistance from safety planning to legal help and relocation. For many people, there is also an option to receive help without having to file a report with the authorities.
In addition to this local help, there is a wealth of information and resources online, including Military OneSource and the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

United States Army Garrison Italy's official proclamation for Domestic Violence Awareness Month states: "See the signs, avoid the hazards. Address problems early."

Take this simple message to heart by being aware, and educating yourself and others. And if necessary, be an advocate for children who may have trouble advocating for themselves.

Whether a family is in need of assistance in feeling safe in an abusive situation, wants some general relationship or parenting guidance, or wants to take advantage of the many opportunities for fun family time together, the Family Advocacy Program is here to help.

VanderBorght is a Child Development Specialist/Media Educator and Family Advocacy Program Parent-Child Educator and Emergency Placement Coordinator for U.S. Army Garrison Italy.