FORT KNOX, Ky. – Like their parent who is abused by a partner, children who witness domestic violence can suffer a lifetime of emotional, mental and physical consequences. However, there is hope for recovery.

Social worker Stacey Haynes of the Fort Knox New Parent Support Program says, “A child that has been exposed to domestic violence for two years is a lot different than one that has been for 10 or 15 years.”
Social worker Stacey Haynes of the Fort Knox New Parent Support Program says, “A child that has been exposed to domestic violence for two years is a lot different than one that has been for 10 or 15 years.” (Photo Credit: Jenn DeHaan, Fort Knox News) VIEW ORIGINAL

Social worker Stacey Haynes of the Fort Knox New Parent Support Program helps victims and families who have experienced domestic abuse in their homes. She said the impact violence has on a human being – whether experienced or witnessed – physically changes a person’s mind.

“When you’re nervous or scared, your brain gets overloaded with adrenaline,” said Haynes. “Adrenaline is a chemical that’s only meant to be distributed rarely when you need to focus and get out of a situation. When you’re always scared and adrenaline is always pumping, you can’t think clearly.”

Depending on their age, children in homes where domestic abuse is present develop different types of reactions, Haynes said. Younger ones oftentimes revert back to things they’ve outgrown such as bed-wetting, thumb-sucking or increased crying, while school-aged children take on feelings of guilt and self-blame. Teens who witness abuse may act out negatively by starting fights, bullying others, or engaging in risky behaviors such as unprotected sex or drug use.

Haynes explained researchers have studied brain scans of those who have experienced trauma as a child versus those who haven’t, and the results are clear.

“When you take a brain that’s still growing that doesn’t have reasoning and decision making fully developed yet, and you flood it with a chemical on a regular basis that’s intended to be used rarely, it changes the way that brain works – and it changes it forever.”

Haynes said the long-term effects of constant trauma-induced adrenaline on a developing child, though, are farther reaching than just the brain.

“When adrenaline is loaded on a brain, the body fills with cortisol, which is good and normal in stressful situations,” said Haynes. “But for children who have chemicals resting on their underdeveloped organs regularly that are meant to be temporary, the organs can undergo damage, and there becomes a higher prepotency for illnesses and chronic disease later in life.

“Statistically, those who experience regular trauma as children can have 20 years taken off their lives.”

Another detrimental effect of children growing up around abuse is the cyclic impact it has on them in future relationships.

“The example that’s being set really locks in at those early ages,” said Haynes. “For example, girls are so much more likely to be in an abusive relationship because it’s oddly what feels right and normal to them. It feels like that’s what it’s supposed to be because that’s what their home was like.

“Abuse then feels like home.”

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a boy who sees his mother being abused is 10 times more likely to abuse his partner as an adult. A girl who grows up in a home where her father abuses her mother is more than six times as likely to be sexually abused as a girl who grows up in a non-abusive home.

Haynes said there’s a reason for these staggering statistics.

“Kids learn everything about who you should be as a person by watching what’s happening at home,” said Haynes, “so if they see a parent yell or throw and punch things, they accept that as normal, good and right.”

For young children, Haynes said seeing a person they trust inflict abuse has a detrimental imprint on their impressionable minds.

“Kids love their parents no matter what,” said Haynes. “You can be the most abusive person in the world and that child adores you and looks up to you. They’ll repeat and emulate everything you do, because they learn by imitation.”

Haynes said the key to counteracting the effects of witnessing or experiencing domestic abuse is to surround a child with “protective factors” – exposure to healthy relationships and people who make them feel safe, loved and accepted.

“Exposing them to goodness, love and connection does more to zero out the negative than anything else,” said Haynes. “Therapy is always a good thing as well, but nothing helps more than getting them around people who are kind and loving on an everyday basis. It’s like bubble wrap against all the negativity for kids.”

Haynes urges those who know a child who has been subjected to domestic violence to educate themselves about all the ways it can affect them, and how help can change their future for the better.

“Nobody is born an offender,” said Haynes. “Half of your personality is who you are, and the other half is based on the experiences you’ve had throughout your life. If you’re raised in a violent home, you’re more likely to repeat that – but protective factors can make a difference.”

Domestic violence doesn’t have to repeat itself, according to Haynes, but it’s up to adults to act.

“If a child is connected to one individual outside of their home that makes them feel valued and loved, safe and cared for,” said Haynes, “it can change the whole trajectory of that child’s life.”

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Editor’s note: For more information on domestic violence, the Family Advocacy Program or support for parents, call the Fort Knox New Parent Program at 502-624-5970.