Consider this hypothetical:
Adam is 6 years old. His parents split up when he was born and their relationship has always been extremely acrimonious – psychologically and emotionally abusive. Adam spends most of his time with his mother. He is non-compliant and verbally and physically abusive towards her, but not towards his father. A year ago, after an altercation with his mother, Adam contacted his father, who immediately took him to his local police station.
On Adam’s behalf, a police officer took out an interim AVO on Adam’s mother, on the basis of his father’s allegations of physical assault and emotional abuse. Although a judge rejected the AVO, the Family Court has now granted Adam’s father full custody of him. In his short life, he has a preschool and primary school history of bullying and aggression. He has been suspended from school and he is at risk of expulsion.
What are the domestic violence risk factors for Adam? And, can the Victorian Government’s new school program, ‘Resilience, Rights and Respectful Relationships’, with its anti-domestic violence agenda, help children like Adam?
Let’s examine his risk factors
Exposure to domestic violence
In Australia, domestic violence is defined as acts of violence between people who have had an intimate relationship in a domestic context. While there is no single cause, there are clear risk factors. For example, there is mounting evidence that domestic violence is more likely to be committed by those who were chronically exposed to parental conflict as children, like ‘Adam’ was.
Exposure to domestic violence can lead young people to develop inappropriate cultural norms for violence and aggression, and to model the unregulated, negative behaviour and attitudes they witness.
Adam would not be alone in his experience. Data from the 2006 ABS Personal Safety Survey shows that where there is parental conflict and children, most children suffer from the exposure. They are more likely to enter into an abusive relationship in adulthood, either as the perpetrator, the victim, or both. Adam’s exposure suggests that he is a likely candidate.
In addition, Adam’s mother experienced postnatal depression as a young migrant and single mother, within the context of partner hostility. Her postnatal depression would limit her emotional availability for Adam. Consequently, Adam is unlikely to be furnished with the tools for emotional self-regulation.
Furthermore, her stress might cause a ‘spill over’ effect that would influence her parenting style. It is likely to be more authoritarian in response to Adam’s non-compliance. Her harsh response would provoke Adam’s defiance, in a vicious, aggressive cycle. Adam’s father has also withdrawn from parenting. His contact with Adam is, in fact, inconsistent and infrequent.
Adam’s exposure to conflict and parental withdrawal would encourage his aggression and anxiety in the face of social challenges. Furthermore, with a lower threshold for emotional arousal, he is likely to have poorer coping skills in those situations.
There is mounting evidence that a child’s mere exposure to domestic violence is a form of emotional abuse. If so, Adam would have experienced emotional abuse in bucket loads. Research suggests that he would be at risk for increased aggression as a teenager. And aggressive teen behaviour is another risk factor for family violence.
How do we define emotional abuse? Emotional abuse is widely recognised as one of three main forms of child abuse, alongside physical and sexual abuse. But emotional abuse is much more difficult to define than physical and sexual abuse because its consequences are invisible and, in most cases, it cannot be identified with a specific family crisis. The lack of an acceptable definition is why there is no unified agreement about what actually constitutes emotional abuse. Hence, while arguably as prevalent as physical and sexual violence if not more, it is an underestimated, under-researched and under-treated area of domestic violence and child abuse. It appears that emotional abuse occurs when the agent’s behaviour is culturally inappropriate, highly repetitive and intentionally damaging to the victim.
Adam’s exposure to parental conflict ticks the ‘inappropriate’ and ‘repetitive’ boxes, but it is difficult to say whether it is intentional. In my experience, few parents intentionally damage their children in this way.
While emotional abuse within the family is infrequently discussed, it is even more rarely considered in the school system. In this setting, Adam is impulsive, aggressive and non-compliant with female authority figures. He explains his behaviour as a response to his young female teacher repeatedly “screaming” at him, “picking” on him and being generally “unkind”. If Adam’s perceptions are to be trusted, his teacher’s behaviour fulfils the criteria for emotional abuse: it is culturally inappropriate, repetitive, intentional and emotionally damaging.
So, can the Victorian Government’s Resilience, Rights and Respectful Relationships program help Adam?
The Victorian Education Department recently published its learning materials for the $21.8 million Resilience, Rights and Respectful Relationships educational package for students from Kindergarten to Year 12, with the aim of promoting “emotional and positive relationship skills” and the skills to evaluate cultural gender stereotypes. Outcomes are expected to include an improvement of students’ health and wellbeing, and a minimisation of “antisocial behaviours, including gender-related violence”.
Because Adam is at risk of further aggression, it appears that he might well benefit from this government initiative. The Foundation Learning Materials package begins with activities that promote emotional literacy by teaching young children to recognise their own and others’ emotions and the contexts that trigger them. There is certainly evidence to suggest that emotional awareness can promote pro-social behaviour, a skill that Adam needs to develop both at school and at home.
Next, there’s a personal strengths section. It begins with games that encourage sustained attention, social cooperation and the identification of acts of kindness and courage in the face of fear. The section ends with children identifying their personal strengths. Given his mother’s depression, Adam needs emotional strengthening. His awareness of his positive personality traits is likely to support his needs.
The following section is on positive coping. It includes positive self-talk and mindfulness activities. These skills encourage children to note the physical symptoms associated with anxiety and to positively reframe the situation to reduce the symptoms. Yet, Adam’s exposure to parental conflict and his difficult school situation might emotionally overwhelm him to the point where he’s in fight or flight mode, rather than rational thinking mode.
Next, the problem-solving component motivates social perspective-taking, cooperation, inclusiveness and compromise. These are social skills that Adam lacks.
After that, there’s stress management. Adam might well benefit from this section, given that he has his fair share of stress, both in school and at home. Children are asked to brainstorm coping options: activities that cheer them up and calm them down. By his own account, there’s not much that Adam has to cheer about. He would rather not attend school, and he isn’t that keen on being at home either.
Thereafter, there’s a section on seeking help. At times of stress, children are expected to identify people and situations with which they’re positively connected, and in which they feel safe. At this point in his life, Adam is unlikely to feel safe or connected at home or in school. At home, he confronts his mother’s stress and at school he suffers the threat of expulsion.
The discussion on gender and identity is designed to help children challenge sexual stereotyping and expand their social-emotional options. Adam might benefit from the repetition of this component through the school years, but at this point, he is unlikely to be interested in the idea that it’s OK for girls to play boys’ games.
‘Positive gender relationships’ extends the former component by challenging the cultural legitimacy of male aggression, often labelled ‘rough play’. Adam’s aggression is neither considered nor gender-based. He simply wants to regulate his impulsive ‘roughness’, but at this stage, he cannot help himself. “It’s in my brain and I’ve done it before I know it,” he tells me. Finally, the section entitles children to protect their bodies and to resist any attempt at physical violation, which is a universally valuable lesson.
The Victorian Government’s Resilience, Rights and Respectful Relationships package would undoubtedly support Adam’s social and emotional development to some extent. In terms of his psycho-social development, much of the program is inarguably beneficial. But there are clearly other interrelated variables that can weaken some of the learned advantages. These are the social, cultural, ecological and historical factors that are likely to influence his behaviour, emotional stability and candidacy for domestic violence. So, perhaps the Victorian Government could begin with a program that offers training beyond the child as the focus of analysis. For a start, the training could and, by current standards of development psychology, should, extend to teachers and parents.
Dr Jennifer Smith is a Sydney-based educational, developmental and counselling psychologist.Do you have an idea for a story?
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