I’ve run a bullying group and have done enough research on bullying to know what the effects on the bystanders are. U.S. government states that between the ages of 3 to 17 there are 3-4 million children a year that witness and are bystanders of domestic abuse.
Children who are bystanders often suffer from anxiety because they never know what will trigger the abuse towards their parent or them. They spend a lot of time trying to make the abuser happy. They feel worthless and powerless.
I know for my older son, who was dealing with bullying in school as well, that home was not a relief for him because of the bullying going on in the home. He flat out told me this at the age of 12. He had generalized anxiety that caused him a great deal of trouble in middle school. He felt like the walls were closing in at school, he suddenly didn’t like sleeping alone when he had always been a kid that slept with his door shut and never had any issues. My happy, brilliant child had turned into an anxiety -ridden mess.
Children who grow up with abuse are expected to keep the family secret. Although, I never asked my children to keep our hell private. Instead, I encouraged them to be proactive with a plan in place for calling the police or leaving if we needed too. We had a small suit case packed and ready to go. They knew to take the phone upstairs if their Dad started to yell. Unfortunately, children from abusive homes can look fine to the outside world, but inside they are in terrible pain. As bystanders or witnesses to abuse, they can become withdrawn, aggressive, start bullying others, depressed, sad, or angry. They can feel guilty too for maybe thinking they said something to set the person off or because they cannot protect their parent. They withdraw, act out and show an anxiousness to please the abusive parent. Their school attendance may be poor.
Children have a natural tendency to identify with strength. Abusers typically play into this by putting the mother down in front of her children and telling them that their mother is “crazy” or “stupid” and that they do not have to listen to her. I’m still reeling with the reality of this but they are learning. My oldest, who was abused, is the hardest one to realign but I keep plugging away at it, hoping to reverse some of the damage. But, I was a strong, capable, opponent and my children knew they were safe with me and are safe with me in our new home, so some of the attitude comes from frustration and knowing Mom is a safe person to vent with. I am blessed with talented, amazingly smart kids. I’m confident that their lives, while affected by the domestic abuse emotionally, will still be full of much happiness and successes and I continuously work with them on that emotional relationship piece and try to encourage positive communication with no put-downs or yelling. We take turns listening and repeating what the person has said and then following up with “are you done speaking?” I have put a lot of work into trying to make sure they did not become a statistic of alcohol or drugs due to being witnesses and so far, at 17 and 19, I have not had one issue with substance abuse. They have great friends and we are adjusting to our new life.
But the reality is boys who witness their mothers’ abuse are more likely to batter their female partners as adults than boys raised in nonviolent homes. I thank God that my boy’s, even when they are mad, are careful not to step into my personal space and try to intimidate me which they could easily do as they are both now over 6 feet tall. They show a lot of respect and restraint and I hope with continued positive modeling from me, that as they get into their future relationships, they learn to cherish and appreciate all females in their lives. If not, Mom will be there, ready to let them know that their behavior is unacceptable. Because no matter how old they are, I will always be their mother!