The way children respond to violence and the consequences they suffer are various. Some consequences are visible and obvious, while others are hidden and more difficult to recognize. It is important to understand the connections between different components of the way a child operates (cognitive, emotional, physical operations and behaviours). The consequences of violence have to be evaluated in the context of the child’s developmental phase, as well as in the context of his/her way of operating in the past and currently, current family situations, etc.
The consequences are complex
Children have different types of developmental needs based on their developmental phase. Experiences of violence can influence the fulfilment of these needs. Exposure to violence can influence a child’s physical health and development, psychological health, emotional, and behavioural development, identity formation, self-image, relations with other people, self-preservation skills. Stien and Kendall (2004) emphasize that the results of numerous analyses display negative consequences of experiences of violence and abuse during childhood on brain development; namely, these consequences fragment brain functioning and have a negative effect on brain development, memory, and learning.
Sense of security, control, and trust
Traumatic experiences of violence destroy the feeling of security, the sense of control and trust. As a consequence of the experience of violence, a child’s sense of self, others, of the world can alter.
Difficulties with regulation of emotions and arousal
Inappropriate style of attachment can diminish a child’s ability to regulate affection (Forgash and Copeley, 2008). This is common in cases where a child is a victim of violence in early childhood. A child will learn to “switch off” the unpleasant excessive activation of the sympathetic nervous system with spontaneous activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. Repetition of this pattern becomes the basis for subsequent experiencing of shame and dissociation as greatly exaggerated response to stress (Forgash and Copeley, 2008). As a consequence of traumatic experiences, the brain can stay active and ready for defense from danger for a longer period of time. The organism alarm system is constantly active and stimulated by traumatic memories. This is a condition of chronic stress, which has inevitable repercussions on the physical, emotional, cognitive, and behavioural functioning of a child. Children, who are victims of violence and abuse oftentimes experience either extreme response, excitement, flood of emotions on one hand, or emotional numbness, irresponsiveness on the other hand (Stien and Kendall, 2004). Constant feeling of threat, fear, and memories of the traumatic event generally lead to avoidance and emotional numbness, which acts as a wall from painful memories and experiences.
Dissociation is an important defense mechanism associated with traumatic experiences. It has a double function, namely, it aids an individual to withdraw from the traumatic experience, to avoid pain, during the traumatic event, and consequently disables the integration of traumatic experience in the perspective of their life (van der Hart, Nijenhuis, Steele, 2006, v Forgash in Copeley, 2008). Dissociation is viewed as a solution for the feeling of helplessness.
Experiences of violence, as traumatic experiences, can on one hand cause incredibly picturesque memory and on the other hand a complete block of the integration of experience. In such a way, the victim of violence can either remember the traumatic event vividly and in great detail or not remember anything, maybe only fragments. Oftentimes, it is a combination of both (van der Kolk and others, 2007). When a child talks about traumatic experiences it is important to consider that he/she might not tell everything that he/she remembers; that certain circumstances were not observed and consequently not memorized; that the child forgot some things; that some things have „changed“ when the things he/she remembered were mixed with new information or that the memory lapses are „complemented“ with own explanations and information; certain contents were pushed into the unconscious under the influence of psychological defences, while others will come back in time. Certain children and also adults might not have a verbal memory of the experiences of violence, while the emotional memory will be saved in the body. The latter is due to the fact that the hippocampus section of the brain, which enables the storage of memories, is developed during the second and third year of age, while the amygdala, the section of the brain that detects horror and fear, is mature at birth (Burke, 2012, in Van der Kolk, 1996).
Difficulties in personal relationships
Children who are victims of violence often experience difficulties with trust, in themselves and others, difficulties creating bonds with others, difficulties in expressing and accepting affection. Often there is a strong need and longing for closeness on one hand, and fear from closeness on the other hand, which can represent a risk for experiences of pain (Stien and Kendall, 2004). Children can develop a number of survival strategies related to personal relationships. We will face these during the counselling process. Sometimes a child needs a lot of time to slowly take a step closer in the relationship and attempts to trust. Sometimes, a child can seem open on the outside; however, he/she is actually reserved. Other times, a child’s behaviour can be disturbing or even destructive. He/she might not be willing to cooperate, can reject you or the counselling process either directly or indirectly, or can be rebellious. However, he/she can also be very obedient, cooperative, will quickly create close relationship and will idealize you. Some children have a strong need to have the control in the relationship.
Physical violence, which a child experiences in his/her family either as a direct victim or as a witness, can create a „message“ that physical violence is an acceptable way of conflict resolution and gaining control over other people. According to van der Kolk (1997, in Stien and Kendall, 2004) there is a 10x greater probability for boys who witness their fathers abusing their partner to abuse their partner as grown men, as opposed to the men who did not experience partnership violence as children.