Every parent knows the telltale signs of a good ol’ temper tantrum: There’s often screaming, tears, maybe some flailing of arms and legs as they lay on the floor of a public place.
But when these angry outbursts are frequent and bring with them violent behavior, or when a child seems sullen, withdrawn or not interested in any normal kid activities, this can signal something deeper is happening—something like domestic violence.
The questions then become: If you notice these signs in someone else’s child, do you step in? What do you say? What if you’re wrong? The last question is why Brian F. Martin, founder of the non-profit Childhood Domestic Violence Association, says most people don’t get involved, even if the signs are there.
“The penalty for being wrong is pretty great. You’ve just accused parents, incorrectly, of being domestically violent. This whole idea of how to spot trauma in children is why there’s no progress being made. Trauma is misdiagnosed so frequently.”
Martin founded his New York-based non-profit in 2007 to bring awareness to the problem of childhood domestic violence (CDV), a little-known term to the public but used by prominent researchers to describe growing up with violence between parents or a parent and significant other.
Identifying childhood domestic violence, says Martin, is not the problem. One hundred percent of children exposed to domestic violence, he says, are affected by it. “It’s not like some kids growing up with domestic violence have these characteristics and traits; they’re all impacted.” Find a domestic violence situation with kids in the home, says Martin, and you’ve found children suffering from trauma.
The National School Safety Center found 2.7 million U.S. children are bullied a year. Conversely, 15 million children are exposed to domestic violence annually. “We can educate on bullying but not this? Educators think bullying is a bigger issue than this because they don’t know what to call it [CDV],” says Martin.
According to Martin, we’re asking the wrong thing. “The question is not how can we identify the children, it’s how can we help them identify themselves?” Martin hopes CDV can someday be taught as readily in schools as bullying. Until that happens, it’s important to know the signs of CDV:
Infants: Decreased responsiveness, fussiness, trouble eating and sleeping
Pre-Schoolers: Aggression, behavior problems, frequent bed wetting, isolating themselves from peers, feeling unsafe, suffering separation anxiety, bad dreams, self-blame, lower verbal skills
Grade Schoolers: Aggression, frequent outbursts, bullying others, frequent bed-wetting, poor quality peer relations, emotionally withdrawn, fear, emotional responses not matching situation, lower verbal skills and reading levels
Adolescents: Dating violence, bullying, use of drugs or alcohol, early sexual activity, emotionally withdrawn or detached, frequent health complaints, short attention span, lower verbal skills, difficulty trusting others
Trauma in children can sometimes be mistaken for ADHD. Read more about that in When Children Experience Trauma.