Trauma and Dissociation in Children Living with Domestic Violence
(Originally published in ISSTD News, October 2018)
Eli, age seven, lives with his younger sister, Marianne, age four, and their mother, Lisa, in New York City. They had lived in a domestic violence shelter for a year, and before that with his stepfather, Mark, till Lisa fled with the kids following repeated violence. Huddled in his bed, Eli had often heard his stepdad beating his mother. He’d wait helplessly till she sought refuge in the children’s room once Mark stormed out. She’d sob herself to sleep on the floor by his bed as he lay awake, worrying his stepdad would return and hit her more.
Mark was the only father Eli knew. His biological father left shortly after he was born. Eli adored his stepdad. He loved it when Mark took him to the park and showed him “how to build muscles” on the monkey-bars. He also hated Mark for hurting his mother, and felt guilty for admiring the very strength that brutalized her. When one night his bruised mother took him, still in pajamas, to a “hotel for mommies,” Eli wanted to go back home. He cried and screamed and it made his mother cry. One of the shelter’s women told Eli he was being “selfish” and that if he “wanted to grow up to be a decent man” he would “stop hurting his mom.” Eli felt confused. Was he hurting his mommy like his stepdad hurt her? Sometimes his stepdad would apologize in the morning and say “he didn’t know his own strength.” Did Eli also not know his own strength? Did he hurt his mommy without meaning to?
Eli stopped fussing, but he still missed his stepdad. There were no dads in the shelter, only whiny babies, toys big kids wouldn’t share, and mommies with scared eyes and scary bruises. He didn’t like it there. He couldn’t go to his own school. He couldn’t see his friends or go to the park where he’d played catch with Mark. Instead, he had school in the shelter and played at the playroom where the carpet smelled funny. Eli tried to be good but still his mommy cried at night. Maybe he was hurting her by his thoughts of wanting to go home? He didn’t know how to stop wanting to go home.
Even when they finally left the shelter they didn’t go home. His mommy said their new apartment was “home, sweet home,” but it wasn’t. It wasn’t even near the park and he had a new school with different everything. Also, his mommy was scared again. She had a lot of locks on the door, and slept on the floor by his bed again. Like before. She cried even though Mark wasn’t there to hit her. Eli tried to take care of his mommy but he didn’t know how. He was doing it all wrong. He didn’t know what to do.
When I met Eli, he was repeating Kindergarten and showed difficulty with attending,
comprehending, and meeting academic demands. Teachers reported he could be talkative but mostly seemed to be “in his own little world” and frequently complained of stomach-aches, asking for his mother to take him home. His occasional explosive aggression led to questions about whether he needed a more restrictive environment “for the protection of everyone involved.” Both Eli and Marianne had attended a therapeutic play group at the shelter, and the counselor there noted that Eli had “tended to keep to himself” and was “always with one ear to the door, listening if his mom was okay.” The little boy hadn’t been aggressive toward others at the shelter, but the counselor wasn’t surprised to hear “some of that rage bubbled up eventually.”
“Lions are strong,” Eli emphasized. “They eat the deer.”
We had just finished reading a story about forest animals and their needs, and he seemed disappointed that no one got eaten.
“Yes,” he added, smacking his palm on the closed book. “Later, he’ll beat her up and then he’ll eat her. He can kill her …”
He shuddered and looked up at me and appeared a lot younger than seven. “That sounds very scary,” I noted gently.
He pointed to the deer on the cover of the book. “Can she hide?” he asked.
I nodded and pointed in the direction of a napkin. I wanted to give him space to go where he needed. It was obvious this wasn’t about deer and lions.
Eli took in a trembling breath.
“I hide.” He whispered and reached for my hand. “I hide inside the closet in my mind.”
It’s what he did when mommy was being hurt and when she cried and when he missed his stepdad and when he didn’t know what to do: he went inside the closet inside his mind. Not the real closet, where people can find you, but a better one, in his head: A closet where only he could open the doors, where no bad sounds or smells got in. It wasn’t scary in his closet, just quiet. But sometimes he forgot to open the doors and pay attention and the teachers said he wasn’t a good listener and kids said he was stupid. His mommy told him that if she kept missing work to take him home from school she’d lose her job and they’d lose their apartment. But he worried about her. He heard her tell a friend on the phone that she was scared Mark would shoot her at work. Like on TV. He wanted mommy to take him home so she won’t be at work where Mark can come. And sometimes he thought he heard scary Mark coming so he’d jump out of his closet fast and hit but then people told him he was being bad, too. It made him want to go back in the closet inside his head but he needed to look after his mother. He was “the man of the house” now. He didn’t know what to do.
Exposure to domestic violence hurts children (Edleson 1999, Sousa et al 2011). Witnessing violence impacts children as much—and sometimes more—than being hit. It is unbearable to a child to be helpless to save the caregiver they need, and it can be even worse when the one harming the caregiver is also someone the child depends on. Children often convince themselves that the violence—and its prevention—is somehow theirs to control (Levendovksi et al 2003, Sousa et al, 2011). In a child’s mind, if only they were better, quieter, and less needy, the people they rely on would not become terrified or terrifying.
The very words that accompany domestic violence can be confusing. Did mom “ask for it?” Did stepdad “only hit her because he loved her?” Does saying “I’m sorry” mean it didn’t happen? Unable to make sense of what is happening around them, children—like Eli retreating into his “closet inside his mind”—might shut-down and dissociate. They can appear unemotional and numb, stop attending, and fall behind socially and at school. They might mirror the aggression they’d seen. Very often children feel guilty if they love the person who hurts the other person they love, and guilty for hating the person they love for hurting another person they love. They rarely have the words or space to describe any of this. Children who apply dissociation to cope with terror and helplessness may also shut down at reminders of the trauma, reinforcing dissociation and resulting in children who are less available for processing information and utilizing available support (Siegel 2012, Silberg 2013, Wieland 2011, Yehuda 2005, 2016).
Even after a parent flees domestic violence, strain often continues, and children might mirror it in ways that reflect not only past trauma, but also current issues. A parent who escaped domestic violence can still be vulnerable. They might still be scared. They might have limited financial, social, and emotional resources. Children sense this, and may hide their own difficulties to protect the parent from distress. When feelings of resentment, anger, worry, or grief inevitably overwhelm them, the children can feel doubly guilty. Unfortunately, just as Eli was scolded at the shelter, children might be chided if they misbehave and be told “there’s already enough to deal with.” They might dissociate to avoid added shame and helplessness. They might become hyper-aware of the parent’s mood and try to accommodate it (Ostrowski et al 2007, Lyons-Ruth & Block 1996).
A loss of home—even the mere risk of it—can be overwhelming and preoccupying, leaving children anxious, wary, worried, angry, or withdrawn. The parent may be managing depression, posttraumatic stress, financial insecurity, and grief; all of which can inadvertently reinforce unhealthy dynamics. This is why it is crucial anyone who works with families fleeing domestic violence, understands children’s behaviors and the functions they serve.
Domestic violence hurts children. While children don’t always communicate their distress verbally, they almost always do so in their behaviors: In aggression and acting out, in shutting down, in falling behind, in what they won’t talk about, in what they do or cannot do (Silberg 2013, Waters 2005, 2016, Yehuda 2005, 2011, 2016). It is paramount we hear them, for our reaction may become the measure of whether they believe help is available.
Eli’s mother was depressed, but she was also determined to keep her children safe and to minimize the impact of trauma on their future. She entered counseling to deal with her own unresolved history, and enrolled Eli in a therapeutic playgroup. She became more involved in his therapy with me, and learned to support his narrative when he spoke of his feelings, including difficult ones about the violence he’d witnessed. Together, at his request, we made a visual representation of the “closet inside his mind” using a shoebox that the two of them painted to fit his inner representation. Eli was able to put his “big feelings” into the closet-box for safe keeping so that he can attend better at school. He was delighted when his mother made a small blanket for his closet “so even the biggest feelings can be cozy and safe.”
With his mother less frightened and himself less alone, Eli was able to let in play, instruction, joy, and praise. His explosive aggression ceased, and he was catching up on language, academics, and friendships.
“Remember when I told you about my closet in my mind?” he said at one of our sessions. “I don’t need to hide there anymore. It’s old and it’s too small for me,” he added without judgment. “I was little, but now I can speak up and if I get scared I can go to mommy or the teacher … or you. I don’t need that closet. The bad memories can rest there.”
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