Numerous studies have shown that domestic violence has a negative impact on children in the home, even where there is no additional direct abuse to the children, and that children who are so young that they are preverbal and cannot yet understand the significance of the violence are nonetheless harmed.
Among other things, scientists have shown that observing domestic violence constitutes a trauma which becomes programmed into a child’s developing brain and body leading among other things to significantly increased likelihood that the child will relive domestic violence relationships and ultimately negatively impacts the physical and mental health of the child throughout life.
The Washington University Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences has posted a very interesting video that shows a toddler responding to anger which is not directed to the toddler. The video has gone viral. It is enlightening to observe a preverbal child reacting and adapting to avoid being harmed by anger even though the anger is directed toward another person. The study reflected in this video made similar observations as to 149 other toddlers.
With regard to the principle and understanding that domestic violence harms children, this study is important in that one can observe the preverbal toddler’s reaction to anger though it is not being directed at the child. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the harm caused to a child who observes domestic violence is many-fold and all of its implications are not observable on a video.
“Trauma” is becoming a buzzword in the child welfare, mental health, and even medical communities. As the dissemination of the results of numerous recent studies on the subject continues, nonprofit organizations and governments are developing ways to incorporate trauma-informed practices in their work.
Reviewing recent studies, including MRI scans showing direct impact of early life trauma on brain structure and function, it has become apparent that such trauma impacts individuals and families in fundamental ways. Early life trauma is literally programmed into the brains and bodies of traumatized individuals during fetal life and the earliest years, and thereafter has been shown to affect their behaviors and experiences in negative ways, including, among other things, by leading or contributing to the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), by leading to self-destructive behaviors, such as substance abuse or engagement in high-risk relationships, and even by leading to physical and mental health issues and premature cell deterioration and aging in part through its effect on telomeres at the ends of chromosomes.
The word about these issues and their significance is finally spreading, facilitated in large part by the revolutionary ACE study (the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study out of Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and led by Vincent Felliti and Robert Anda), which has shown that adverse childhood experiences lead to numerous adverse adult experiences and that the effect is proportional.
In one current initiative, Georgetown University has teamed with JBS International to create a web-based tool to support leaders and decision makers in government and private organizations in becoming more “trauma-informed” in serving their populations. I recommend taking a look at this important web-based resource: National Technical Assistance Center for Children’s Mental Health, Georgetown University Center for Child and and Human Development.