Experiences of violence

Most children who provided material for this site have suffered a form or various forms of abuse or neglect.

Please, don’t hurt me

Some of them had experienced and witnessed domestic violence. Chronic violence at home destroys the child’s capacity to trust and love. It occurs in situations of intimacy, dependence and attachment as does the relationship between a parent and a child.

The child has to accept the adults’ version of the world to survive. Instead of the adult supporting the child to develop to their potential, the child ends up having to meet the adult’s needs.

Children who are victims of violence in the home are dependant on their parents. They must seek help and rescue from the same person who may also frighten and harm them. To survive, such children often need to keep the delusion that the offending parent is actually a good parent. They find an explanation for the parent’s violence by blaming themselves and keep the hope that if they correct their behaviour one day the terror and the pain will be transformed to love. Some children learn to use aggression as a social strategy to solve conflicts or manage overwhelming feelings; others may be passive victims who may become victims in other situations as well, such as being bullied by peers at school.

Many times children become victims of physical abuse at home. It often results from inappropriate or excessive physical discipline or lack of maturity of parents or caretakers and lack of parenting skills. It mostly occurs in the name of “the good of the child” and in the form of punishment. Physical abuse can take many forms – slapping, hitting with hand or another object, kicking, shaking the child, pulling hair etc. There are not only physical indicators of the abuse that are visible. The invisible emotional pain for the child is as strong as the physical pain and the emotional impacts are long-lasting. Children who are victims of physical abuse may display withdrawn or aggressive behavioural extremes, soreness, lack of trust, discomfort with physical contact or become chronic runaways.

Other children who provided material have suffered chronic neglect. It is not only physical and psychological abuses that damage a child’s psyche.

Children need love and warmth, adults who make them feel valuable and support their physical and emotional growth. If a child lives with systemic indifference, detachment, coldness and emotional neglect, they are deprived of the joy and satisfaction of experiencing themselves as being emotionally important to their parents. Neglected children have to find strategies to survive and get their needs met. In the child-parent relationship, it is crucial for the parent to accept that the child has his/her own feelings, thoughts and desires. Children experience themselves as important if their intrinsic worth is reflected in the way their parents relate to them. The constant neglect, the impossibility for one’s voice to be heard harms a child’s soul in an invisible way. The child loses the capacity to demonstrate free will and individuality.

We know also that some of the children that worked with us to compile this web-site had experienced sexual violence. Sexual violence has long-term effects on children’s emotional development. It is particularly confusing for children because it links sexuality with aggression. As well as physical violence there are also emotional impacts; the child’s body and mind are abused simultaneously. The physical body can recover if the violence ends but the child’s psyche remains deeply traumatized.

Mummy, Mummy

In order to deal with the emotions deriving from those forms of abuse that are most harming, like sexual violence, some children may “turn off” their ability to feel. Some children may appear to be clever and seem to cope really well but inside, they can be afraid of trusting and getting close to people. Emotional bonding may provoke tension and anxiety and children can act those out through violence or self-destructive behaviour. Other children “turn off” their ability to think because of the trauma they have experienced. Sometimes children’s development can be affected and children may be misdiagnosed, such as having attention deficit disorder, learning difficulties or other psychological or behavioural problems, when their behaviour is really a symptom of their experiences. Still other children continue living with the confusion between love, sexuality, and aggression provoked by the sexual violence. For such children, closeness goes only with sex, and the sexuality remains the only way to find love and protection. Sexual behavioural problems are another sequence of this. Older boys can identify with the perpetrator in their attempts to overcome the confusion regarding their sexual orientation. Girls may use sex as their sole “currency”, the only worth they possess

Sometimes professionals do not know how to respond to children who have experienced sexual violence. It is commonly shrouded in secrecy, untold stories, lack of clarity, and feelings of guilt. Children do not always recall things in a coherent sequence of events.  There are often no witnesses and so professionals often have to consider if a case is  “probable” or “possible”. For many children, sexual violence is something they have to deal with on their own. Sometimes responding in a sensitive way can have a huge impact for the child and can be the start of the process of developing trust and feeling valued which are crucial to their recovery.  Children tell us they want to be listened to and believed; to understand what happened, to name it with simple words, to take away the child’s guilt. This can be a chance for the child to head for the road of recovery.

It has not been possible to get the views of very young children (under 3 years old) about violence as they are often not able to express them, although we may get some clues from their behaviours if we choose to look. However, we do know that there can be serious consequences for very young children living in violent and unpredictable environments.

When very young children are faced with unpredictable and frightening environments they automatically turn to the adults closest to them for comfort. When the fear is created by the person they are most dependent on, they quickly learn how to organise their emotional life to comply with the adult’s needs rather than to have their own needs held central. This is a surviving strategy that sets a template for how children will perceive others. These children learn that it is not always safe to signal a need, they know how to avoid conflicts and conform, they know adults are not trustful and they learn not to have expectations.

Nevermind, leave me alone.

Children who observe and experience aggression from early in their life develop aggressive and anxious behaviours themselves. Aggression becomes their preferred social strategy. They learn that relationship difficulties are resolved by threat or violence.  Some of these young people will be the ones accessing mental health services in the future. Should this be their legacy?

A significant number of the children who contributed had a variety of disabilities. Children with learning and physical disabilities are particularly vulnerable to harm. This can be because their mobility is restricted, or their method of communication is unfamiliar to us, or because we do not properly listen to what they are trying to tell us.

We know that professionals are likely to make sense of the way a child is behaving as a function of their disability than to give consideration to the possibility that they may be frightened or need help because they are being abused or neglected.

Some of the children who have contributed to the making of this web-site are diagnosed with a learning disability, yet when you look at what they have produced you would not immediately know that. All of the children give similar messages to adults who will listen.

Gallery "What is violence to us?"
Gallery "What do we need to feel safe?"
Gallery "What do we need from adults?"