Children are at high risk in domestic abuse situations. They suffer enormously and particularly emotionally. This suffering is often hidden and the root cause often goes unrecognised until serious damage has been done. The act of abuse towards a child is illegal under Australia law, and if a parent is being abusive, they can be convicted of a serious crime. There are similar laws in most developed countries and many less developed countries.
Children can be abused directly, but also indirectly - the effects of both are very similar. Children often feel responsibility for the abuse toward others in the same way that many victims feel it is the things they do that cause the abuse. In reality, habituated abuse behaviours are a choice of abusers who are very selective in where they abuse, and generally it is hidden behind closed doors.
When children witness the abuse of others, particularly one of their parents or a sibling they can be severely traumatised and the psychological effects of this can be very serious with long-term consequences for their social adjustment, their ability to do well physically or educationally and thus their life chances are badly affected. When we see children showing effects that may be from domestic abuse - direct child abuse or from witnessing other abuse in the home, we should consider this as a possibility and work to find ways for the child to get professional help.
The short term or immediate effects may include fear, anger, sadness, having trouble sleeping, feelings of guilt and acting out.
The long term effects may include anger management issues, trust issues with others, alcohol or drug abuse, mental and physical health issues such as depression and anxiety, self-harm and disassociation.
Needless to say, these affect the life chances of the children, but also compromise their ability to live the Christ Life. When compounded by their perception of hypocrisy (of the abuser), and sometimes the inability of the ecclesia to respond effectively, children are poisoned against accepting Christ and being part of the family of Christ. Instead of seeing marriage as a God-given blessing they end up with relationships founded on sand, sustained only by fleeting shared interests that are at high risk of devastation by the slightest change in life circumstances and interests.
What can we do?
Firstly, when talking with victims about the behaviours that appear to be abusive, we must include a discussion of the effects on any children in the relationship. We should follow the advice of experts who say that we should not be advising victims to leave, but instead telling them we will support them and help them to find safety if they do. Ultimately the best expert on the victim’s situation and risks is the victim themselves. That said, by raising the effects on the children (like those described above) that we see and explain our concern so the victim can contemplate whether the children are suffering collateral damage. Our willingness to discuss this openly can help raise the issue in the consciousness of those affected.
It is all too common that we only recognise the consequences to children when a survivor decides to report 20+ years of abuse in the marriage and the children are young adults. Often we see that their children have mental health issues, drug and alcohol problems, difficulty finding healthy relationships and a cynicism toward Christ's way and our Heavenly Father. This is likely to be an effect of the abuse, caused by the abuser - it is never the victim's fault. An open conversation about the effects of domestic abuse, however, can open eyes and help victims to see these problems much earlier and get the help they need, especially for the children.
When we see children in these sort of distressed situations we must keep their interests paramount. Regardless of what other help is being provided to the victim and abuser we must do what we can to see that help is provided to the children. Finding ways to have one or both parents support getting counselling and other professional care for the child or children is important, and where financial or other assistance is required because of the family circumstances the ecclesia or wider brotherhood should be called upon to support this. We should remember that there are Christadelphian counsellors in many places that may be available to help, even remotely.
Where we perceive the risk to the children falls within the requirements for mandatory notification to the authorities it is always our responsibility to the Law of the Land and thus to God’s Law that we do this without hesitation. The requirements of mandatory notification in these circumstances do vary between jurisdictions. We should be aware of our responsibilities in this regard. Usually this information is available on the internet.
If you are in any doubt about the profound effects upon children research this subject on the internet - there is a wide range of research on this subject and a lot of publicly available information.
Modelling our Lord and our Father's care for children
Our Lord placed his hands on the children and prayed for them. He commands us to let them come to him and not to hinder them. If the very hairs of our head are numbered by our Father, surely every one of our children are in his constant watch, and we must not neglect them in any way but know them all by name and proactively work to give them every opportunity to respond to the Father’s Love.
Suicide and self harm: if this article raises concerns we have or concerns we have about others near us there is help available. In Australia you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 and similar 24/7 support services are available in most every country.
If this article raises concerns you have about domestic violence in your own life or those around you can call 1800RESPECT (If in Australia) or similar services in other countries. There is also a list of support services on this website including Christadelphian Support Services.