Babies and toddlers are too young to understand what is happening between adults at home, but they may be distressed or scared by yelling. They may sense their mother’s tension and stress. A mother may not be able to consistently respond to the needs of her baby if she is a victim of abuse. This may negatively affect the parent-child bond. The baby may be scared to explore and play. A toddler’s play may imitate the abuse witnessed in the home.
When a pre-schooler sees abuse at home she may worry about her own safety and about getting hurt herself. She may feel responsible for the abuse. At that stage of development, everything in the world relates to the toddler. Some pre-schoolers may try to intervene to stop abuse, putting them at risk of harm. They may exhibit regressive behaviours; the unstable environment can inhibit their progress toward independence.
When a school-aged child sees abuse at home, he may blame himself for the abuse if he heard his name during a fight, or somehow believes that he could have prevented it. He may be concerned about the safety of his mother and siblings. A child at this age may be influenced by attitudes and behaviours associated with abuse, putting him at a greater risk of bullying others and/or being bullied.
When a teenager has seen abuse in the home, she may feel responsible for taking care of younger siblings. She may be embarrassed by her family and reluctant to bring friends home. She may fantasize about leaving home or actually leave. She may use unhealthy coping strategies such as drugs, early sexual activity, or self-harm. She may have difficulty forming healthy dating relationships or avoid intimacy. She may try to intervene during the abuse to protect her mother.
Jala is a 28-year-old immigrant from Saudi Arabia. She and her husband Amid have four children. The move to Canada was difficult. Jala does not speak English well and has trouble understanding the customs of her new country. She is lonely. Recently some other mothers at her children’s school invited her and the children to a backyard gathering after school and she went. Amid was furious when he arrived home to find no one there. He accused her of being trash and forbade her and the children to leave the house without his permission, threatening to physically harm them if they disobeyed. He locked Jala and the children in their rooms for the rest of the evening. The children cried and have become very fearful. Her oldest son blames himself for begging to go to the gathering. Jala feels like a prisoner in her own home. She will never make friends. Although Amid has not hit her, she fears he will.
Jala is being emotionally abused and her children are suffering. Optimism Place can help, by providing shelter and support with any immigration issues that Jala is concerned about through the Family Court Support program. The Children’s Services Coordinator can talk with the children about the abuse they are experiencing and explain that they are not to blame. Jala is not alone.