Thursday, April 2, 2009

domestic violence

It is vital that teachers be vigilant for stress and stress responses in children who have experienced abuse and/or neglect. Fully 60% of children who witness domestic violence, for example, develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD), while 50% of their mothers develop it. Children may be victims of community or domestic violence, war, accidents, natural disasters with lasting impacts on their physical and mental health. In all of these situations they are victims of abuse and neglect.

In Ontario abuse MUST be reported to the Children's Aid Society.
Students experiencing such stress are in a constant ‘fight or flight’ mode. Even in infancy, children who have witnessed domestic abuse, or have been victims of violence, abuse, or neglect, are at risk for social, emotional, physical, and psychological issues. If a woman and a child under the age of 11, witness the same violent event, the child is 3x's more likely to develop PTSD.

Students who have PTSD, includes those who witness abuse. having extremely high cortisol levels. This effect is worse on the brain than victims who are sexually or physically abused.

At a presentation at a DART conference, Dr. Diane Benoit* provided definitions and an historical perspective of PTSD and domestic violence as it effects children as young as 3 months. She outlined the effects of early attachments, or their absence in families in which infants are not protected from violence, stress and domestic assaults.

Under 'normal' stress, cortisol gives us a burst of energy, heightened memory, a burst of increased immunity, and helps the body function. This hormone, in early humans, increased the ability of an adult to escape a potential risk. Under normal circumstances, it is secreted by the adrenal glands and helps with metabolic rates, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, immune functions and inflammatory responses. Under prolonged or extreme violent situations of violence or abuse, the impact on the child can be lasting.

Stress responses are similar to being clinically depressed: low-self esteem, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, negative life view, emotional instability, impulse control, physical self-abuse, eating disorders, substance abuse, poor social skills, illnesses, low academic achievement, and impaired moral reasoning.

Teachers should look for extreme reactions to normal stress levels. Students who demonstrate abnormal fearful responses in incongruent situations: anger when another child does not cooperate, extreme reactions to accidents, sudden loss of temper, violent reactions, the appearance of the whites of their eyes.

Children can regress after a violent incident. They can exhibit bizarre reactions to normal stressors, as their brain attempts to protect them from further stress. These children need to be identified early and get appropriate help from qualified therapists. We must endeavour to understand how children perceive trauma, respond early and appropriately and find help for them.

Dr. Benoit gave tips for law enforcement and early responders to child victims
  • check to see if they are physically hurt
  • get down to their level
  • acknowledge that something terrible has happened, "You must feel pretty scared."
  • Refrain from dissing either parent
  • Assure them that the situation is NOT THEIR FAULT
  • Keep them with familiar, safe adults
  • Check in with Victim Services responders to keep them safe (escape plans, court orders)
  • Provide them with more information
  • Explain the next steps
Children need help facing their fears. This post, on Children and Grief gives some help, and this, on The Grieving Process, provides further information for all ages.
*Diane BeNoit, (M.D., FRCPC), is an associate Professor in the department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto,

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