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Does Domestic Violence Touch You?

by Lynn Marie-Ittner Klammer

"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 domestic violence.

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 Jon—not his family—was 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 family.

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 available resources.

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."

Lynn Marie-Inner Klammer is a licensed clinical psychologist, college educator and free-lance writer. This is her second Youth Update.

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.


Does your boyfriend/girlfriend have the potential for violence?

People who find themselves married to a violent partner can usually point to many clues that were present while they were dating. Dating is your opportunity to find out if your partner has the potential for violence. Protect yourself from being in a violent marriage by knowing what to look for. Here are some questions to ask yourself.

  1. Did he/she grow up in a violent family?
  2. Was he/she abusive in previous relationships?
  3. Does he/she abuse drugs/alcohol?
  4. Does he/she have difficulty controlling his/her temper?
  5. Does he/she blame others for his/her behavior?
  6. Is he/she extremely jealous and possessive of you?
  7. Is he/she cruel to animals?
  8. Are you afraid to tell him/her how you feel?
  9. Do you ignore your own values in order to make him/her happy?
  10. Is your self-estem dependent upon his/her being happy with you?
  11. Do you feel he/she doesn't care about your opinions?
  12. Do you feel powerless in the relationship?

For more information about domestic violence, and where you can go for help, call the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence at (303) 839-1852. Trained hotline personnel will help you to find sources of local assistance.


Are there reasons why men are more abusive than women? Or are they?


Many answers have been cited as possible reasons for male violence from simple physiology to social conditioning to male psychology. In this article, no female abusers are described simply because the vast majority of reported cases involve male abusers. Even when men are the victims of abuse, they are far less likely to seek help, which makes it difficult to know their numbers. Current estimates, however, are that two to ten percent of domestic violence victims are male.


Is spanking a child a kind of abuse?


Spanking is not abuse if it's used appropriately. Spanking should never be done out of anger or with the intention of injuring the child. Spanking should be done with love to bring about a positive outcome for parent and child. Abuse, on the other hand, is a hostile, violent act that intends to cause harm and has only a negative outcome. I would make no comparison between abuse and the appropriate use of spanking.


Why would an abuser pick on only one or two members of the family?


There can be a variety of reasons why an abuser chooses to hurt one or more family members. This article has reviewed some of the reasons why people are violent, but the choice of an abuser's target is another, very complex issue. As you might suspect, it has much to do with the psychology of the abuser. For instance, some select the most vulnerable member of the family; others abuse someone who reminds them of a person they hate but can't hurt.


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