Breaking the Cycle: Understanding Domestic Violence and Intergenerational Trauma

By Tara Davis, Directorate of Prevention, Resilience and ReadinessOctober 23, 2023

Breaking the Cycle: Understanding Domestic Violence and Intergenerational Trauma
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October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which focuses on raising awareness of violence that affects millions of individuals and families worldwide. Domestic abuse is a complex issue with farreaching consequences, extending beyond its immediate victims. It most often is used as a synonym for intimate partner violence (IPV), but in the broader sense it includes all forms of familial abuse. Domestic violence is not limited to physical abuse or battery but includes sexual, emotional, psychological and financial abuse. It may include tactics like stalking, isolating and using technology to perpetuate abuse and to control victims. Domestic violence is preventable and usually not an isolated incident.

Now what if I told you that the trauma or abuse your parents experienced or that they witnessed affects you? Those experiences can be passed from generation to generation, continuing the cycle of trauma and domestic violence. Frequently seeing your parents use maladaptive coping mechanisms when you are a child—such as excessive alcohol consumption, drug misuse or witnessing a parent use violence against a spouse, sibling or other family member—may become ways that you cope with stressors and affect your overall health.

This continuous cycle is known as intergenerational trauma. Dr. Donna Ferguson of the Department of the Army’s Criminal Investigative Division Strategic Initiatives Groups says, “It’s actually a phenomenon that happens inside of families and describes traumatic experiences by parents that is adversely transmitted or passed down to their subsequent generations.” The resulting effect is that the next generation—i.e., children—are exposed to direct or indirect trauma symptoms, which causes vulnerabilities in their adulthood.

She shares that intergenerational trauma has only recently been discovered within the past 70 years and is also referred to as generational trauma and transgenerational trauma. Recognizing the urgency of addressing domestic violence and intergenerational trauma, the Army’s Family Advocacy Program (FAP) plays a vital role in prevention, intervention and counseling within the military community. Tanya Juarez, FAP manager at Headquarters, Department of the Army, describes “FAP’s comprehensive approach as one that operates proactively and reactively to address domestic violence and abuse among Soldiers and their Families.”

Before abuse occurs, FAP engages in prevention efforts through initiatives like new-parent home visits, workshops and training sessions to educate about healthy relationships, communication, parenting skills and stress management. These services aim to reduce the risk of domestic abuse.

FAP’s mission extends to providing services after violence has occurred. This includes intervening when incidents are reported or identified, coordinating with commanders and law enforcement, assisting victims in developing safety plans, offering counseling services for both victims and those who commit acts of abuse and providing advocacy and legal assistance. The program ensures that there are multiple reporting options available, including restricted, unrestricted and confidential channels.

The Department of Defense recorded over 40,000 domestic abuse incidents involving military service members, spouses or intimate partners from fiscal years 2015 to 2019, with 74 percent of those incidents being physical abuse. Approximately 17,000 of the domestic abuse incidents involved Army Soldiers, spouses or intimate partners. According to the Government Accountability Office, domestic abuse can result in devastating personal consequences and societal costs. The DOD also states that domestic abuse is incompatible with military values and reduces mission readiness.

Military Families face unique stressors, including parental deployments, frequent relocations and parental combat exposure. These events can increase stress levels, emotional strain and Family conflicts.

Intergenerational trauma associated with domestic violence often causes chronic anxiety in families. Ferguson says, “Chronic anxiety is rooted in the conflict of attempting to try and maintain yourself while trying to make meaning of the connections of family to the trauma or domestic violence or the pain.”

Ferguson further explains that children learn from their families and the physical, social and psychological environment. In the future, they may find themselves wondering why they can’t solve problems they are facing effectively or at all. “Not realizing they’ve normalized the behavior of trauma in their adulthood, they won’t understand why they’re struggling in relationships, suffer from depression, insecurities and low self-esteem,” Ferguson says.

Exposure to domestic violence, whether as a victim or witness, can lead to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including intrusive thoughts, nightmares, flashbacks and severe anxiety. Moreover, children exposed to domestic abuse are at risk of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which can cause significant emotional and physical harm. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 6 adults has experienced four or more types of ACEs. ACEs are responsible for five of the 10 top leading causes of death.

To break the cycle of abuse, seeking resources from FAP or Army Community Service (ACS) before abuse occurs is crucial. There are many ways we can prevent abuse, such as seeking counseling services, using available childcare services and educating oneself about the signs of healthy and unhealthy relationships. Juarez says, “We must address domestic violence and abuse before it starts. Building healthy relationships early on is key to prevention. All of us must be united to end domestic violence and child abuse.”

Domestic violence is a complex issue with farreaching consequences, extending beyond its immediate victims. Intergenerational trauma underscores the importance of addressing abuse not only for individuals but also for future generations. FAP plays a central role in preventing and addressing domestic abuse within the Army community. By understanding the potential impact of ACEs and the unique challenges that military Families face, we can work to break the cycle of abuse and build healthier relationships for our community.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, reach out to your installation Family Advocacy Program. You can also contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or visit https://www.thehotline. org/. The DOD Safe Helpline is also available at 877-995-5247 or for support and to report sexual assault. The Army provides resources like the Special Victims’ Counsel/ Victims’ Legal Counsel and the Office of Special Trial Counsel to assist victims seeking legal action against those who commit acts of violence, maintaining confidentiality and offering legal guidance throughout the process.