Recognising the signs of domestic abuse in school children
This week, Grade 7 and Grade 12 pupils trickle back to school. For those who come from homes plagued by domestic violence, this might feel like a welcome respite from the emotionally charged environment they’ve been trapped in for weeks.
Children of domestic abuse are often the neglected victims because while they may not experience the physical abuse directly, but the fact that they are witnesses to it exposes them to extreme mental, emotional and psychological trauma.
The fear and uncertainty of the Covid-19 crisis will undoubtably have exacerbated the trauma they experience in their homes on a daily basis and many pupils may feel close to breaking point.
Identifying signs of trauma
A person experiences trauma when exposed to a disturbing event, such as a car accident, attempted hijacking, violent episode in the home, sexual abuse incident etc. The experience of this incident leaves the individual feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope, deeply affecting their sense of self.
There are three types of trauma:
- Acute: experience of a single distressing event
- Chronic: experience of repeated or prolonged disturbing events, such as domestic violence
- Complex: experience of varied and multiple traumatic events, such as rape as well as domestic violence
Children who are living in the nightmare of domestic violence feel alone and isolated. They feel disconnected to reality because detachment is often a subconscious response to being stuck in a life-threatening situation.
Each time they experience an incidence of violence in the home, they have to override the instinctual flight or fight response. (They can’t flee the situation, neither can they fight to defend themselves – or the caregiver who is experiencing the physical abuse).
While similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), complex PTSD has heightened symptoms, which can include:
- periods of losing attention and concentration (also known as dissociation)
- feelings of shame or guilt
- difficulty managing emotions
- physical symptoms, such as headaches, dizziness, chest pains and stomach aches
- relationship difficulties
- destructive or risky behaviour, such as self-harm, alcohol misuse or drug abuse
- suicidal thoughts
Girls respond to domestic violence by becoming withdrawn and experiencing depression, while boys will be more likely to adopt violent behaviours such as bullying and initiating fights. Both girls and boys will tend to participate in risky behaviour, such as taking drugs or engaging in sexual activity. These are other tell-tale signs of trauma:
- Decreased attention or concentration in class
- Complaining of headaches, stomach aches or ulcers
- Increase in absenteeism
- Hyper-vigilance exhibited by over- or underreacting to bells, physical contact, doors slamming, sirens, lighting, sudden movements
- Not paying attention to appearance
- Irritability with friends, teachers, events
- Detachment, shutting down, isolating themselves from others
- Lack of concentration in class
- Change in academic performance
- Anxiety about safety of self and others
- Withdrawal from others or activities
- Eating disorders
- Substance abuse
How teachers can support child victims of domestic violence
Depending on the number of children in the home, each child will subconsciously take on roles of support of the mother, trying to shield her from future abuse. The perpetrator often manipulates and controls the children, forcing them to take sides.
As a result, the children also go through various abuse cycles along with the mother. These stages involve tension building, then the explosive incident, followed by the honeymoon phase. Over time, this ongoing trauma erodes their self-esteem and they develop a deep sense of distrust in themselves and in others.
The mother often does not realize that she is inflicting this kind of burden on her children, because she is focused on her own pain and struggles. The legitimate needs of the child for psychological and physical safety is ignored, leaving the child to believe that their needs are invalid.
If you notice signs of trauma in your pupils, you can support them by:
- Getting them professional help: Find out about the support services on offer at your school or in your community. Speak to your principal about the best way to approach the pupil because you want to be able to build trust.
- The child might deny that there is anything going on at home – or they may provide information of the incidents in detail.
- You will need to involve a social worker, depending on the advice of your principal
- Helping them feel safe: If you feel unsure of how to approach a student directly, try to give a general talk about the resources available to help victims of domestic abuse. Let them know that you are available to talk privately if you are willing to do so.
- Discussing the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships: Be intentional about discussing the signs of healthy and unhealthy relationships with the whole class. Co-dependency is at the root of abusive relationships, so creating a picture of what a healthy relationship looks like can be powerful tool to challenge unhealthy familial patterns.
- Inspire them to dream: Prior to lockdown, the suicide rate among the 15-24 age group was steadily increasing. With the multiple financial pressures as a result of Covid-19, young people need a reason to hope. Punctuating daily lessons with positive message may save more lives than you can imagine.