Children do not have to be themselves the victims of abuse to suffer from its effects.
They are also badly affected by seeing abusiveness between significant adults — parents, caregivers — and often develop some kind of health or behaviour problem as a result. Health problems may include bed-wetting, nervousness, stomach aches, headaches, nightmares and soiling. Common behaviour problems are truancy, stealing, disruptiveness and poor achievement.
James came to counselling in a last-ditch effort to save his marriage. He had been abusive to his wife, Julie, and his two stepchildren. What James came to recognise was that he wanted to:
‘…enjoy my children growing up. I don’t want them to know Dad as a big mean grump and a guy who is unapproachable. I want the children to be able to confide in me ... I want to get back the trust and respect I have lost. I know it takes time for respect to grow because if you have hurt someone over many years, trust will take a long time to rebuild.’
In another group, Brent set out all of the people affected by his abusive behaviour and how they had changed as a result. He was surprised by the sheer number of people who were affected. His partner Mary was edgy around him, uncertain of how he would react to issues she would raise. She had become depressed and withdrawn, having gone off to the family doctor who prescribed medication to help her cope. Brent was annoyed at Mary not being her old energetic self and described his relationship as ‘being married to nothing’.
The situation was profoundly affecting their three children. Kim (3) was becoming clingy and demanding, Jane (6) was withdrawn and quiet, while John (8) was beginning to treat Mary in a similar way to his father. He would argue, abuse her verbally and threaten by saying things like, ‘Dad says you are a no-good mum’, and ‘I don’t have to do what you tell me.’ John’s school was also concerned about his aggressive behaviour towards his teacher and the other children.
Mary’s mother, June, was most concerned about what she saw happening to her daughter, and spent considerable time trying to support the family. Brent hated what he saw as her interference and was rude to her, letting her know she was not welcome. When she wasn’t present Brent would berate Mary about how June interfering in their family was the cause of most of their problems.
June had talked with Kathy, Brent’s mother, about her concerns. This resulted in Sam, his father, and Kathy trying to talk with Brent about his behaviour. Brent was angry at his father’s ‘holier-than thou’ attitude; he remembered what it was like during his own childhood — his father’s abusiveness, and the expectation that he would be independent. Brent described his early life as very difficult.
‘In the family I grew up in my father exercised his rights. There was this attitude that men and boys would be independent while girls got everything they wanted … even at high school I had to go out and work for what I got ... they didn’t have to go out and work ... if they wanted clothes they just had to ask Mum and Dad and they got them ... I resented them for that all the time … my birthday was on the 29th of December and my birthday and Christmas present were always the same.’
These memories meant Brent was not able to clearly hear his parents’ concerns. He was also becoming increasingly isolated from his own brother and sister, with whom he had shared a great deal of time. Brent saw a bleak future with everything he had ‘worked for’ slipping away.
Ken McMaster (MSW Hons, CQSW, MANZASW) has a thirty year history working at the cutting edge of intervention work with men who are violent and who sexually abuse.
Suzi Hall (M.A. Psych) has a background of working in child protection and forensic interviewing of children with Child Youth and Family Services.
Matt Williams (BTcLn, NCALNE) has a 15 year history working within the social service and criminal justice sectors as a trainer and program developer.