"Dad used to be pretty bad," says
Becky. "He would get drunk and hit Mom and me. Until
Mom and I left, it was pretty bad." Becky's mother is
just one of the three to four million reported cases of domestic
violence in the United States each year, and Becky is just
one of an unknown number of teenagers who live in an abusive
home. When we think of domestic violence we usually think
of the wives and mothers who are the victims of their husband's
battering. Less often do we remember the children who must
survive within these violent homes. Their stories are less
often told, and less often remembered by the media when publicizing
What Is Domestic Violence?
Domestic violence doesn't mean only physical
abuse. Abuse takes many forms, such as economic, sexual, emotional
or psychological abuse.
Economic abuse is most often seen with adult
victims of domestic violence, but is very easy to inflict
upon teenagers. Refusing to allow you to work or taking away
any money you have saved are ways to control people your age.
Sexual abuse is not difficult to recognize.
Being forced to wear certain kinds of explicit clothing, being
fondled or even forced to have intercourse are all examples
of sexual abuse.
Emotional pain does not heal within a few days
like cuts and bruises do. The emotional pain connected with
other kinds of abuse lasts far longer. The memories of a loved
pet being killed or of favorite possessions being destroyed
can stay with an individual for a lifetime. Janice was 15
when her father forced her to watch her pet being killed.
Janice still remembers, "He took me and Mom in the basement
and made us watch while he beat our dog to death with a baseball
bat." That memory and the pain of Janice's abusive past
will never fully leave her.
Like emotional abuse, psychological abuse can
also be more damaging to a person than physical pain. In fact,
these closely related kinds of abuse, though less publicized,
are far more common than physical and sexual abuse. Eighteen-year-old
Meredith knew she wasn't happy, but didn't think her mom was
being abused until she spoke to a crisis line counselor. "Dad
would call Mom things like fat and stupid all the time,"
says Meredith. "He'd yell at her all the time just for
doing anything. He liked to call her 'worthless.'"
Psychological abuse like this can be more hurtful
than physical. If you are slapped or kicked, the bruises will
eventually heal, but psychological wounds may never heal.
Even if the abuse isn't aimed directly at you, seeing a loved
one hurt can be a damaging and painful experience. Psychological
pain may continue for a lifetime and even lead to other difficulties
such as low self-esteem, depression and eating disorders because
it strikes at your entire personality.
Living With Violence
Whatever the particular type of abuse suffered,
there is a "cycle of violence" that is common to
domestic abuse. Most survivors of domestic violence agree
that there are three phases to the violence that takes place
within their homes. Generally speaking, there is an initial
phase during which the level of tension within the home builds
and builds. The family will usually recognize that the abuser
is on edge and will try to do whatever they can to please
the abuser or stay out of the way.
Eventually, in phase two, the tension builds
until it explodes into aggression. The abuser strikes out
violently and either physically, emotionally or psychologically
assaults the family. Even if it is only one member of the
family who is hit or verbally injured, the entire family suffers.
"It used to drive me crazy," says 20-year-old Glen,
who grew up with an abusive father. "I'd sit on my bed
and pray and pray that he wouldn't hurt my mom, but you could
just tell it was going to happen. The yelling would get worse
and worse and then it would start."
Once the abuse ends, a "hearts and flowers"
stage begins. During this third stage the abuser usually says
he's sorry and promises never to do it again. This final stage
is often one of the reasons that victims will stay in the
abusive relationship for so long. The family finally receives
the love and affection they want from the abuser. This "cycle
of violence" will repeat itself over and over, and without
help, is likely never to end.
Children in a violent home generally are unable
to leave unless they can convince the mother to go. Mothers
fear becoming victims of the abuser's anger, even life-threatening
anger, if they are found. Running away from home is usually
the only other option, which usually puts the person in even
more danger. The children often feel trapped and helpless,
unable to help themselves or their family.
Jon was 16 when he left home to escape the frequent
beatings his father would give him and his mother. "I
had to get out," Jon remembers. "Dad would come
home from work and just start yelling for no reason. I never
knew when he was going to start in on me. One time I shut
the bedroom door too hard. He said I slammed it, and he just
started slapping me. I fell and then he started kicking me.
I had to get out."
Jon's parents put him in a psychiatric hospital
twice before he finally ran away from home to a life on the
streets. Jon's parents told people his wounds were self-inflicted.
Putting him in the hospital was a convenient way to make people
believe that Jonnot his familywas the problem.
In Jon's case, as in many others, the wife of
an abusive husband (and often the entire family) will try
to cover up what is happening in the home. The wife often
feels shame and even a sense of responsibility for what's
happening. This feeling of being at fault for the abuse is
also common in other members of the family.
Kelly, 14 when her mother finally left her abusive
father, relates what this feels like. "I just kept thinking
if I could only do things right. If only I hadn't said the
wrong thing or whatever, then maybe Dad wouldn't have gotten
mad and beat us." Victims often feel this way, and the
abuser will encourage such beliefs as a way to maintain control.
Some children simply deny what is happening
to themselves and their family. "I thought it was normal,"
says 21-year-old Bob of his lifetime of abuse by his father.
"When we screwed up, Dad would hit us. Sure, I figured
maybe he got carried away sometimes, but I figured everyone's
dad was that way."
Nineteen-year-old Ben suffered numerous broken
bones, cuts and bruises at his father's hands. Eighteen-year-old
Shaun remembers the beatings his mother would receive for
anything from not having dinner ready on time to wearing the
wrong kind of perfume. "Dad would get so mad. We kids
would go to our rooms and wait for it to end. I hated living
at home. I love my parents, but I hated being with them."
Love for the abuser is a common reason spouses
and families give for staying. Women are especially susceptible
to believing that they can help the man if they stay with
him. Even when the mother sees her children abused she may
still feel that it's best to keep her family together and,
of course, hopes that one day the abuse will stop.
Sometimes work or something outside the family
is seen as the cause of the abuse, and the woman will hope
that when the job changes, the abuse will stop. "Mom
said Dad just had a lot of trouble at work," remembered
18-year-old Kelsey. "She said when he'd find a better
job he wouldn't get so mad anymore, but it didn't matter."
Another common reason young people think they
must remain in abusive homes is the lack of alternatives.
Many mothers are unable to provide financially for their family
if they leave. Many have no job or access to money. Shame
often leads them to hide their situation from friends or relatives
who might help.
Also, after years of abuse, many women begin
to believe that they are helpless and worthless. They begin
to believe that they could never survive without their husbands
and are fearful of trying.
A common part of life within a violent home
is fear. Anna, 15, knows this feeling well. "I never
know when it's going to happen," she says. "Everything
will seem fine and then I'll hear him yelling and then before
you know it Mom will be crying. It's horrible!"
The daily strain of constant fear takes its
toll on the entire family. It's not uncommon for various physical
symptoms to appear as a result of it. Jason was eight when
he suddenly lost his ability to control his bowel movements
and had to revert to plastic underpants for protection. Rebecca
developed chronic stomach pain at 15. These kinds of problems
are not uncommon when living under such stressful conditions.
Why Are People Violent?
Based on current statistics, most abusers are
men, and most men who abuse come from violent homes. An individual
who abuses others does so because it's a part of his or her
personality. Some personality components are common to most
abusers. For example, an abuser may be very manipulative of
others ad control outbursts when away from home. For this
reason co-workers and others are often suprised when they
hear that such a person is abusive to family members. Regardless
of outward appearances, however, the abuser has difficulty
controlling anger and may be very jealous and possessive.
Abusers often have low self-esteem and feel
a sense of helplessness. Therefore, an abuser is likely to
blame others for behaviors, have difficulty dealing with stress
effectively and use drugs and/or alcohol. It is important
to note that drugs and alcohol are very often used by abusers,
but are not the reason for the abuse. The personality of the
abuser is the key to the abuse.
An abuser may feel that his behavior is justified
because it is his responsibility to control the family. Many
abusers also believe in male dominance over females and that
females are inferior to males. This belief reinforces their
feeling that they are right to "discipline" their
Where Is God?
Teenagers who must live with the day-to-day
stress, fear and pain of a violent home feel isolated from
the rest of the world. Along with these feelings of abandonment
often come feelings of frustration about God's role in their
lives. "Why doesn't God help me?" is a common question.
Young people are generally encouraged by the Church to be
loyal to their parents and stay in the family home. Your mother
may have been encouraged to remain with your father, to support
him and be faithful to the marriage. Forgiveness, praying
harder and putting it all in God's hands are the kinds of
things priests and other caregivers sometimes tell family
members, but this kind of advice often leads to feelings of
abandonment not only by people but also by God.
The message that should be received by people
in need is that everyone is valuable in the eyes of God and
therefore God would not want anyone to be hurt. Ephesians
5:21 states that you should "Be subordinate to one another
out of reverence for Christ," and compares this relationship
to Christ and the Church. Christ did not harm the Church and
his message was one of love. Out of reverence and respect
to God you must respect yourself and each other enough to
not permit abuse to take place. You do not love or help the
abuser by allowing the abuse to continue, and allowing yourself
to suffer does not bring about any good.
Lisa Cogliandro, a Franciscan sister, is an
outreach worker with the Catholic Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan.
Sister Lisa says, "God doesn't miraculously end our pain
but rather provides for us the resources that can help us
in a situation of abuse." Education, professional counselors,
shelters and community agencies are all examples of commonly
Sister Lisa further reminds you that "God
also provides the inner resources such as courage, strength
and the ability to hope which also keeps you going in these
kinds of situations."
The Franciscan also stresses the importance
of taking control of your own life. "I remember,"
she says, "the passage from Isaiah 7:10-25 where the
Lord says, 'Ask for a sign from the Lord, your God...' and
King Ahaz answers, 'I will not ask! I will not tempt the Lord!'
The Lord then says, 'Listen, O house of David! Is it not enough
for you to weary men, must you also weary my God? Therefore
the Lord himself will give you this sign.'
"God gives us the resources to help us
help ourselves. Do not, as the king did, fail to recognize
what God has already given you. Peer support groups, friends
and families of friends can help you to get assistance. I
would also encourage you to tell as many people as you need
to tell. God does not work in darkness and God wants us to
be truthful and share our problems with each other."
This edition of Youth Update
was critiqued by Michael Adams, 16; Larissa Jackson, 16; Rachel
Payne, 16; and Logan Pierce, 15. All are members of the youth
group at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Hendersonville,
North Carolina. Patrick Reich, parish youth minister, met
with them to discuss the issue and hear their thoughtful questions.