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Section 4
Child Victim-Witnesses

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In the last section, we discussed the Cycle of Violence as it related to four Anger Release Techniques of write a letter, pound on the bed, shred paper, and scream into a pillow.

In this section, we will discuss children in violent homes who experience the Double Dose. The Double Dose of domestic violence is not only witnessing abuse, but also being abused.

As you may know, the symptoms of children who have witnessed abuse are very similar to children who have been abused themselves. As you also may be aware, studies indicate that the traumatic effects on children witnessing domestic violence are equally as harmful as the effects of child abuse. In 30-60% of the homes where women are abused, the children are abused as well. Some estimate that at least half the men that batter their partners also abuse their children. I have found the symptoms of children who experience the Double Dose of witnessing abuse and being abused, to be more pronounced than those just witnessing the abuse.

3 Results of the Double Dose
However, there are several symptoms we have not yet discussed that are more subtle than the more obvious warning signs of anxiety, depression, anger, impaired cognitive functioning, and self-esteem problems. I often see the following three symptoms in children experiencing the Double Dose.

♦ #1 Decreased Empathy
Have you found, like I, that a violent home environment can greatly diminish a child's ability to be empathic and understand how others feel? Samantha, a 13-year old girl, was living with foster parents after she had witnessed her father paralyze her mother by beating her with a baseball bat after he came home on drugs. Samantha had also been physically abused by her father for years and showed very little empathy for others in the group. Samantha stated, "My foster parents just don't understand what's going on. They try to get me to talk about what I'm feeling, but I tell them to shut up and then lock myself in my room. I usually won't come out for dinner."

♦ Exercise: Empathy Journal
I found Samantha was not able to consider that they were just trying to help and that her refusal probably hurt them very much. To help Samantha increase her empathy for others, I asked her to keep an Empathy Journal. For this Empathy Journal, Samantha wrote a short story in the journal each day. The only rules were that each story had to be from the perspective of someone with whom she had interacted that day. Over the course of several weeks, this process of placing herself in others' shoes became more natural to her, and I found Samantha considered the feelings of others more before she acted. If you haven't tried an Empathy Journal with your Samantha, I find it to be an extremely effective tool.

♦ #2 Hyper-Vigilance
As with many children who have witnessed and been abused, Samantha also showed signs of hyper-vigilance. She stated, "I used to lay in bed until 3 or 4 in the morning, until my Dad would come home before I could go to sleep. I knew that I needed to be awake when he got home in case he and my mom started fighting." I found that Samantha carried this fear of impending danger with her even when she was away from her parents. She stated, "I usually can't sleep more than a few hours a night. I wake up after every little thing, like the other night I woke up terrified when the cat sneezed from across the room."

As you know, for children like Samantha, this fear of impending danger often affects their sleeping and waking life. Samantha suffered more hyper-vigilance at night. We discussed some basic relaxation techniques that could help her fall back to sleep. I also suggested that she softly play a CD of her favorite music when she went to bed at night. That way the music could drown out the sounds that may wake her, and if she did wake up, she would hear her calming music and perhaps not be so frightened. Does your Samantha have a favorite CD she might play to assist her with her hyper-vigilant state?

♦ #3 Fear of Retaliation
In our sessions together, I also found that Samantha seemed very cautious regarding telling me about the abuse she endured. Samantha was still in contact with her parents and was very unsure about how they would react to her telling about what had happened. Samantha described her panic attacks by saying, "I feel jittery, afraid, and have a knot in my stomach when I think about the beating I'm going to get for talking to you." In addition to her safety, I discussed with Samantha some things to do when she felt panicky. Samantha thought it might help to calm herself down to hug her teddy bear or pet her cat or call her friend, Natalie. Does your abused child have a favorite stuffed animal, pet, or friend to call? Perhaps their teddy bear or cat may be a " source of support" you are overlooking.

In this section, we discussed the double dose results of decreased empathy, hyper-vigilance, and fear of retaliation that children who both experience as well as witness abuse. Think for a moment. You have received five techniques in this section. Would any be beneficial enough at some point in time to replay this section to review the techniques of an Empathy Journal, CD as a sleep aid, stuffed animals, pets for comfort, or the client calling a friend?

Of course children experiencing the double dose of being abused are removed from the home. In the next section, we will discuss Adjustment Disorder.
Reviewed 2023

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
McAuliff, B. D., Nicholson, E., Amarilio, D., & Ravanshenas, D. (2013). Supporting children in U.S. legal proceedings: Descriptive and attitudinal data from a national survey of victim/witness assistants. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 19(1), 98–113. 

Salzer, M. S., Berg, K. L., Kaplan, K., & Brusilovskiy, E. (2021). Custody challenges experienced by parents with serious mental illnesses outside of child protective services proceedings. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 44(2), 197–200.

Skinner, L., Gavidia-Payne, S., Brown, S., & Giallo, R. (2019). Mechanisms underlying exposure to partner violence and children’s emotional-behavioral difficulties. Journal of Family Psychology, 33(6), 730–741.

Walker, A., Lyall, K., Silva, D., Craigie, G., Mayshak, R., Costa, B., Hyder, S., & Bentley, A. (2020). Male victims of female-perpetrated intimate partner violence, help-seeking, and reporting behaviors: A qualitative study. Psychology of Men & Masculinities, 21(2), 213–223.

What are three signs that a child may be experiencing the double dose of both witnessing and experiencing abuse? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

Section 5
Table of Contents