When a Child Sees Their Parent Abused, the Trauma Can Last a Lifetime
When a child witnesses their parent abused by the police or at home, they experience deep trauma. Healing from it can take many years.
In an August 23rd video that quickly went viral, Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black father, was shot in the back seven times by police as he leaned into the open door of an SUV in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Three of his children, all between the ages of 3 and 8, were in the backseat and saw the shooting take place. Blake had opened the door possibly to soothe his three young children.
Videos documenting police violence across the U.S. are no longer surprising to many people — nor is it unusual for police to open fire with small children present. There are many troubling questions such videos raise. Among them: How are children affected when they see violence against a parent, and how can they recover from the trauma of witnessing such acts?
From a scientific standpoint, we’re just starting to piece together answers. Research into the mental health effects on Black Americans in the aftermath of police violence is fairly new, and little research in this area has focused on children.
There’s more research examining how children react to and recover from trauma generally, including cases in which there’s domestic violence in the home. Still, less is understood about how children are affected specifically when they see a parent abused but aren’t physically abused themselves. Studying children, particularly traumatized ones, is more difficult than studying adults for many reasons. It’s also more difficult to tease out the effects on kids who witness violence, compared with kids who experience it firsthand, because they’re likely to also be victims of the abuser in the home.
It’s an area that deserves a closer look: A 2018 study found that up to 80 percent of kids in abusive homes have personally witnessed violence against their mothers. But government agencies serving families recognized only relatively recently that kids who witness violence need trauma-informed care. A 2007 report by Ruth’s House Maryland and the Baltimore City Domestic Violence Fatality Review Team noted that prior to their study, no protocols existed to assess the effects of trauma on the city’s children or to determine treatment recommendations when one of the child’s parents had murdered the other.
Rachel D. Miller, a marriage and family therapist, and Ph.D. candidate in Chicago, had a high school education when she divorced her children’s father — who she says was abusive — 10 years ago, when her daughter and son were 9 and 12 years old, respectively.
“When I realized there’s no research on kids like mine, I thought, I’ll go get a Ph.D. and do it myself,” says Miller, who is conducting a study of adult children of domestic violence, looking at what they found more helpful and less helpful in recovering from the combined trauma of domestic violence and high conflict divorce/custody disputes. “But what research does indicate is that kids who see a parent victimized have the same types of responses that those who suffered the violence directly did. It’s not just something they saw and heard: Researchers are beginning to recognize they’re victims, too.”
Miller says that after her divorce, her son’s grades took a nosedive. He was 12 and worried that his father wouldn’t be able to handle his mother leaving, so he directed some animosity toward her, she says. Both children had anxiety, although her daughter was more vocal about it. She would tell her mother she was scared and expressed frantic “What if?” thoughts frequently. She started keeping a calendar in her bag that detailed her daily schedule.
“She needed that framework and all the information,” Miller says. “That was the coping mechanism that helped her feel better.”
Predictability and consistency are important for kids just from a basic childhood development standpoint, says Neha Navsaria, Ph.D., a child psychologist and assistant professor at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis who has studied children in the foster care system.
“But when you look at situations where kids are more vulnerable and experience situations where they don’t know what’s going to happen next, or where there’s been a threat of harm, then those ingredients are required,” Navsaria says.
A sense of stability is important, but it’s just one element of healing from trauma. Despite the work Miller and her children did to heal, the effects of domestic violence kept her kids on edge throughout high school, she says.
“My ex-husband never laid a hand on my daughter,” Miller says. “But she spent years being terrified, wondering, ‘Am I next? What am I going to do that’s going to make him come after me?’ ”
How Kids Cope With the Trauma of Seeing a Parent Victimized
Miller’s daughter’s hypervigilance, or constant scanning for danger, is a common response to trauma, experts say. But how kids handle trauma (including race trauma) varies greatly and depends on a host of factors, including a child’s individual personality and natural resilience, how much support they have from caregivers and even genetics, says James Rodriguez, Ph.D., a psychologist, licensed clinical social worker and director of Trauma-Informed Services at the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research at New York University.
Researchers, he says, refer to “the three E’s” when discussing trauma: the event itself, how the individual experiences that event, and the trauma’s effects.
“Long-term effects can range from being able to recover and be resilient — not forgetting the event, of course, but being able to deal with the event well — to all kinds of difficulties with mental and physical health, including the development of post-traumatic stress symptoms,” Rodriguez says.
Anger, irritability, and aggression are common for kids who have been exposed to violence. Having a violent parent is scary, so a way to resolve that is to mirror the abusive parent.
“It might be directed toward the nonoffending parent or other children,” says Katie Lear, licensed mental health counselor and registered play therapist in Davidson, North Carolina. “If they’re the aggressor, they’re not the victim, which gives kids a feeling of control.”
Kids also might clam up after seeing violence against a parent, so adults around them — who might be dealing with grief and trauma themselves — might not realize how it’s affecting them. Lear says that many of the parents of children she sees say their kids seem to freeze when fighting is happening in the home.
Kids, Lear notes, can dissociate because it’s too overwhelming to deal with. This allows them to retreat and not be involved because what’s going on around them is so horrific.
“I’ve had parents worry that a child who seemed blank and still after a trauma might be callous,” she says. “But it could be that kids are feeling so deeply they couldn’t remain present.”
Trauma can trigger physical reactions such as headaches and stomachaches, as well as anxiety and depression. Nightmares are common. It can cause kids to regress developmentally or act out in other ways. Kids might show symptoms of PTSD, such as jumping at loud noises or avoiding places where a trauma occurred. For young children, tantrums or other unruly behavior might be how they cope.
“They’re so overwhelmed by what’s going on,” Navsaria says. “It’s their way of basically saying, ‘I am experiencing all this chaos and I don’t know what to do with it, and you need to organize it for me.’ ”
Parents also often mistake symptoms of trauma for attention-deficit disorder (ADHD), says Nekeshia Hammond, a psychologist in Brandon, Florida, who specializes in evaluating children for learning disabilities.
“I hear all the time the quick assumption that if kids cannot concentrate, it must be ADHD,” she says.“I remind parents that not everything is ADHD. Kids with trauma have a hard time concentrating, problems sleeping, and can be depressed.”
Many parents are surprised that kids even get depressed, Hammond continues. It also shocks many of them when they learn their child is carrying unresolved trauma from years before.
“They unintentionally think kids are little adults and often say they didn’t know this was still affecting them,” she says. “Maybe a parent got over something in a couple of weeks, but for kids, it took years. Their brains are not developed like adult brains at all.”
It has only been in the past couple of decades that scientists have studied the effects of trauma on the brain, says Anandhi Narasimhan, M.D, a child and adolescent psychologist in the Los Angeles area. What they’re finding is that certain structures of the brain can decrease and increase as a result of trauma.
“Different structures serve different functions, and ones that are related to anxiety and fear can get larger,” Narasimhan says. “Other ones related to things like memory, such as the hippocampus can actually decrease in size. The structure associated with fear, the amygdala, can increase.”
When a parent dies, toddlers and even infants can become fearful and anxious, research suggests. The loss of a parent or primary caregiver shatters a child’s sense of safety and security in the world, which tends to cause deep distress. Two- to 6-year-olds typically have trouble understanding that death is permanent, and kids in grade school might externalize thoughts about death by talking about or drawing monsters.
Children’s feelings about death start getting more complicated at this stage. It can make them fear their own mortality, which might make them feel guilty. They might need to distance themselves from the sadness, which might be misconstrued as a lack of grief. Teens might be confused and angry about the parent being hurt or killed and act out violently or abuse substances. Kids — across age ranges — tend to be egocentric, or to think the world revolves around them; this can lead to them blaming themselves for the parent getting hurt or murdered.
When It’s a Cop That Hurts a Parent
Witnessing a parent brutalized by police is a trauma that shares similarities with children who see violence at home, but there are differences.
Kids generally are better equipped to cope after a one-time trauma compared with living in a constant state of stress and fear, as when there’s domestic violence in the home. Although it’s of course traumatic for children to see a parent intimidated, harmed, or murdered by police, kids’ ability to recover psychologically increases if they have stable, healthy influences to help them process the trauma. But even children with nurturing and healthy home lives who have seen a parent mistreated by police also have to deal with the real fear of another violent police encounter in the future, whether it’s the parent who is victimized again or the child themselves.
“Kids who have experienced incidents like this start to learn that their world is not safe,” Hammond says.
Feeling unsafe because of something you can’t change, such as your skin color, is scary, particularly for children, who need protection from adults. After seeing police violence, in person or in a viral video, “they go to school the next day and they still have darker skin,” she continues. “To learn that, because of my skin color, I’m not safe, makes it more difficult.”
Another added layer of stress that Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) kids have that white children who experience trauma don’t is having to wonder and worry about potential biases from teachers and other authority figures. BIPOC kids are often judged more harshly than white kids when they act out. When Black children struggle in school due to past trauma, they might be dismissed by teachers as lazy, compounding the damage to their self-esteem and their ability to thrive, Hammond says.
It’s of course traumatizing to see a parent murdered by anyone. But when it’s a police officer who hurts or kills their parent, it complicates the child’s ability to heal.
“It’s like, ‘Okay, that’s a person in authority who’s supposed to protect us, but instead, they hurt someone.’ Whereas I think if it’s another relative or stranger who hurt the parent, they’re not associated, necessarily, with a position of authority,” Lear says. “So that’s the main difference. But I think both can be equally traumatic.”
Reminders of the incident can traumatize children again, so the ubiquity of police can trigger kids over and over again. For some of Lear’s young patients who have seen a parent arrested or shot, she says, “Every time they hear a siren, they have a strong reaction. Or if they see a cop car, it really terrorizes them.”
Helping Kids Heal From Trauma
Internalizing behaviors after trauma and not wanting to talk about the incident is common for kids, but it’s just as common for them to want to talk about it. Also common are well-meaning adults telling them not to. In families where one primary caregiver (usually male) harms the other, his family might not want the child to talk about the violent act because it’s too painful for them or because they think it’s better for the child not to “dwell” on the incident. No matter the circumstances, adults might assume that children will forget about the violent incident and move on if they don’t talk about what happened.
“There’s this commonly held belief among many adults that kids will overcome trauma if we don’t talk about it,” Rodriguez says. “But those memories can remain and can then lead to this sort of ongoing fear. Kids might have post-traumatic stress symptoms from reliving the memory, and this can be reinforced by parents avoiding talking about the memory. Kids can start showing all kinds of reactions we commonly see, such as hypervigilance, fear, and oftentimes, numbing and depression.”
It can be overwhelming for parents to navigate the lengthy list of trauma-related symptoms to figure out how children are faring after a trauma, particularly if kids are too young to verbalize their feelings. Experts suggest looking for patterns of behavior or a cluster of a few symptoms before worrying that, for example, every stomachache could be an aftereffect of trauma.
It’s also a good idea to check in with kids who have witnessed violence every now and then, Hammond says.
“You don’t have to bombard them with the trauma if they don’t want to talk about it,” she says. “But just check in with them periodically and ask, ‘How are you doing with that?’ ” she says.
Loving, supportive caregivers, family, and close friends are crucial to helping children process trauma. If kids have people looking out for them who can help connect them with appropriate treatment and intervention early on, it can make a world of difference in mitigating the effects of the trauma, Narasimhan says. They can also help kids build more positive experiences in their lives, which can counteract the detrimental effects of the negative ones.
Previous domestic violence research suggests that it’s helpful for kids to have a surviving parent who has done their own work to heal and manage their own emotions, Miller says. In therapy, kids — like adults — can work on healthy boundaries, which are often lacking in homes where domestic violence occurs, and learn that not everything parents do is about them. Kids also can learn what’s within their power to change and how to self-soothe when they experience trauma-related symptoms.
“Some of that is just reaching a place of acceptance about what they don’t have power over, such as custody agreements,” Miller says. “As in, ‘What do I need to get through this now? How do I practice breathing when anxiety comes up, and how do I let myself feel sad when I don’t have space to be sad?”
Remember that kids are resilient, and they can recover — but they need supportive caregivers around them to help.
“What we do know about trauma is that most people actually can recover fairly well,” Rodriguez says. “Which is not to say they are unhurt or unaffected by the event. But most people can recover over time.”
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