I n preparing for this month’s special report on the effects of domestic violence and trauma on children, I found myself thinking back to my own childhood, and the times my parents fought. It wasn’t that often, in truth. And it never resulted in violence.
But in part, that is my point.
My father, a major in the Marine Corps, wasn’t around a lot when I was a kid. He was often assigned to overseas missions and his reentry into our world between assignments was often bumpy. Around the time I was in fifth grade, my parents marriage began to unravel. To be fair, my father had just returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam, an event that could torpedo the strongest of unions. But there were other issues, too.
Although my parents didn’t argue often, the tension at that time made an impression on me. I would lie in bed at night, and listen to their voices rise and fall, sometimes punctuated by my mother crying, and my stomach would be in knots. It made me feel insecure. I wasn’t sure what the future held. And I worried particularly about what would become of my brothers and me if things got worse.
In hindsight, I would say my parents’ fighting was of the garden variety, the kind we all experience at some point in relationships. But still, the anger and tension from that time left me anxious, forever altering the safe, quiet rhythm of my world.
When I think about my own home life and then extrapolate what it must be like for those children whose parents become abusive, either emotionally or physically, I can’t help but imagine the pain many are forced to endure. If they are like Taketha, the 40-year-old woman I interviewed for this story, they suffer in silence, fearful that by telling, they unveil a terrible secret that could imperil the safety of their family or themselves. Children will almost always elect to protect their parents, even the most loathsome ones, for fear of having their family torn apart.
We adults often like to tout the resilience of children, the belief that they can weather adversity and come through it unscathed. And to some degree, that’s true. But mostly I think we’re fooling ourselves. Consider the history of Memphis, which has long been rife with murder and violence, and then look at the city’s high level of domestic violence today. Police figures last year stated that domestic violence was responsible for more than half of the reported crime in the city. I have to believe there is a correlation. Children raised in angry households, with no acknowledgement of their presence, with no assistance in dealing with feelings of anger, frustration, helplessness, isolation, or fear, are potentially destined to perpetuate the cycle of violence. We as a society pay a price for domestic violence. We see it reflected in our crime rate, high school drop-outs, truancy, and bullying. Often, those children go on to become abusers themselves.
This is why I am encouraged by the Defending Childhood Initiative, a project that will target three neighborhoods where domestic violence runs high and children are bystanders. By reaching out to those adolescents who are experiencing trauma, by listening to their story, and giving them the tools to help cope with the anger and grief, we might be able to affect change.
Often, we adults become so wrapped up in our own battles that we fail to understand how the tension in our home weighs on our children. We must become more vigilant. We must begin to see when our child is slowly withdrawing from life and ask why. We must be willing to talk with our children when painful things take place and say, “I care.” We must acknowledge the child who is angry and learn what can be done. We must listen to our children — really listen — and uncover what troubles they take to bed each night.
As parents, we are our children’s protectors. We need to stand strong and let them know we will do right by them and try to protect them from harm. This is a huge task when we ourselves are in peril from an abusive partner. But if we don’t address the problems our children are exposed to on a daily basis, then we risk continuing the cycle. There is help. Seek it out. Remember: Your child’s future is at hand.