Domestic Violence – Toxic Stress

Domestic Violence - Toxic Stress, Dr. Avila and Susan Flower
Domestic Violence is more common than we may think and negatively impacts a child’s long term mental and physical health. In the United States it is estimated that up to 30% of children, 15.5 million, live in a household where domestic violence is present. Exposure to abuse and neglect can lead to what is called Toxic Stress that causes the body to produce stress hormones over long periods of time, including Cortisol, that can be quite harmful to the developing brain and body of a child. Studies have shown that the negative effects of being exposed to domestic violence can start as early as during pregnancy and in the early newborn period. Infants and children are the most vulnerable and it is important to be able to recognize those at risk to help prevent long term consequences.

The relationship between a child and his/her parent are what shape a child’s view of the world. The interaction between parent and child teach a child how others should treat them and how they should treat others. A healthy parent-child relationship is crucial for normal development and for a child to thrive. Infants and children view their parents as almighty and powerful as they depend on these adults to care for them. If there is a rupture in this relationship due to the parent’s absence or mental health concerns they learn to not trust adults. Because the parent is inaccessible to them when they need help with their strong emotions, they do not learn how to regulate them which can hinder their ability to form relationships with others. Victims can develop an exaggerated need to control their environment and appear “bossy or rigid.” There can be an unusually strong reaction to changes in routine.

Research has shown that being a victim of domestic violence can have serious negative effects on a child’s physical health as well.

Negative effects include:

Infants and toddlers can suffer feeding difficulties that can lead to poor weight gain. In addition, they can experience difficulties with sleep and excessive fussiness and crying. They may not meet their developmental milestones and become delayed.

Preschoolers can start to exhibit regression with bedwetting, daytime accidents, and thumb sucking. They may have sleeping difficulties which include nightmares. Behavior changes may include exaggerated separation anxiety becoming very whiny and clingy. In addition, they can have feeding difficulties and constipation.

School-age children can start to have problems with recurrent headaches, abdominal pain, and constipation. They may start to have problems focusing and concentrating which can lead to poor school performance. Behavior changes may include mood changes and bullying or aggression.

Adolescents can present with risky behaviors including drug use and sexual promiscuity which can lead to sexually transmitted disease. They also have difficulty with mood disorders including depression and increase suicide risk. In addition, they struggle academically and lack goal setting.

Ways to help a child or teen who is experiencing domestic violence:

• Allow a child or teen to talk about their experiences and without judging them or their family. Please remember that children in this situation still love their parents.

• It is suggested that children and teens become involved in outside activities. Social and recreational experiences allow children to focus on fun and developing new skills. A parent or another adult can let the child or teen know that they are taking steps to keep them safe.

• Safety plans are recommended so they are aware of how to keep themselves safe, when to leave the home and when to call 911. Developing a list of friends and relatives whom they call when they feel worried about their parent or themselves is essential. Their treating pediatrician can also be utilized as a resource.

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Resources include:

There are local and national agencies that can assist a victim. Some are listed below:
The National Domestic Violence Hotline: http://www.thehotline.org
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network: http://www.nctsn.org
The Sojourner center: http://www.Sojournercenter.org
Arizona Coalition to end sexual and domestic violence: http://www.acesdv.org
Military One Source: http://www.miltaryoneresource.mil
Save the Family: https://www.savethefamily.org