I wanted to think it was a joke, that the young couple was just horsing around. But as I looked closer, my heart started to race. This was real.
I stopped the car short and rolled down my passenger window.
“STOP IT!” I yelled. “STOP HITTING HER!”
The man looked up. He was crouched over the woman, his arm cocked. The woman’s hands were over her face.
“I’M GOING TO CALL THE POLICE!” I yelled.
“Do you hear that?” the woman said. “She’s going to call the police.”
The man spoke to me, so politely it was jarring.
“We’re okay, ma’am. There’s no need to call the police.”
“Do you want me to call the police?” I asked the woman.
I watched it happen, watched him intimidate and shame her.
“Do you want her to call the police?” he said quietly.
She was silent for a moment. Her posture was still defensive, but she seemed to relax ever so slightly.
“No,” she said.
I felt desperate but I hoped my voice was calm.
“There are places you can go for help,” I said to her. “There are people who will help you.”
He turned to me again, unflaggingly polite and terrifying.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said. “We know that.”
I pulled away.
In the movie, this is the part where the camera pans out. It pans out to reveal two children: one, a small boy, standing next to the violent man. The other, a small girl, in the back seat of my car.
Domestic violence statistics are staggering. Estimates by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence indicate that as many as a third of women and a quarter of men have experienced physical abuse by a partner in their lifetimes. Not only that, “1 in 15 children are exposed to intimate partner violence each year, and 90% of these children are eyewitnesses to this violence.” In other words, out of the six percent of American children who are living in an unsafe home, nearly all of them actually see or hear this violence perpetrated. So that little boy is not alone – far from it.
What effect does witnessing this violence have on small children? The authors of a 2011 British study scanned the brains of a group of children, with results revealing that those living in violent homes responded differently to images of angry faces. These children showed an increased level of activity in two particular areas of the brain, the anterior insula and the amygdala. Brain scans of combat soldiers exposed to violence in battle also show increased activity in the anterior insula and the amygdala, areas of the brain associated with threat detection.
The authors suggest that “both maltreated children and soldiers may have adapted to be ‘hyper-aware’ of danger in their environment. However, the anterior insula and amygdala are also areas of the brain implicated in anxiety disorders. Neural adaptation in these regions may help explain why children exposed to family violence are at greater risk of developing anxiety problems later in life.”
As a society, we are just beginning to reckon with the toll of battle on veterans of combat and finding ways to help former soldiers adapt to civilian life. It turns out that some of our children have never had a chance at civilian life.
In the short term, young children may experience symptoms that are far more quotidian. UNICEF’s Behind Closed Doors campaign tells us that behavioral issues among small children who witness domestic violence can include “excessive irritability, sleep problems, emotional distress, fear of being alone, immature behavior, and problems with toilet training and language development.” By the time they’re in elementary school, these kids may have difficulty focusing or concentrating, and as a result often struggle with schoolwork. As they get older, issues can include substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and, ultimately, criminal acts.
Perhaps most frightening on a societal level is that the cycle has been proven to perpetuate itself. An American study that drew on data from the Notre Dame Adolescent Parenting Project (“an ongoing prospective longitudinal study investigating the effects of adolescent parenting on child development”) showed that “witnessing violence and victimization prior to age 10 predicted delinquency and violent behaviors.”
This makes sense. On the one hand, violence has been normalized for these kids. On the other hand, resorting to violence themselves is a way of exerting control since their own home lives are so far out of control. For some, the pattern will continue into adolescence and adulthood, not because they are violent themselves, but because they seek out or accept violent partners. And when children arrive on the scene? The entire cycle repeats itself.
The numbers are discouraging. The outcomes are tragic. So what do we do?
I know where to begin, and the only reason I know is because I did something wrong: I didn’t call the police. And it haunted me. I drummed up a lot of reasons not to call. I thought the man would flee. I thought the woman would lie when the police came. I didn’t want her to be punished further by the man when he inevitably talked his way out of a charge (a big assumption, yes).
But mostly, I didn’t want to involve my daughter more than I already had. And yet I had two excellent reasons to call the police: the woman being abused and the child watching. Add to that a third reason: I need to set an example for my daughter that when someone needs our help, we help. My friends encouraged me. “Good for you for pulling over,” they said. Sure, it was a start. However, it’s not enough to pull over and be a bystander to a cycle of violence that will continue unchecked. We have to do more.
I know where to begin. I’m sharing these resources in the hopes that you’ll join me. The first thing I did was to put this number – 800-799-7233 – in my phone under “Domestic Violence Hotline” where I can easily find it. In the same contact, I put the number of the local YWCA Domestic Violence Program.
My next step is to write these numbers down on index cards and leave a few in my purse and a few in my glove compartment. I hope I never see another woman being beaten, but if I do, I will call the police and I will give her these numbers. Beyond that, there are so many ways to be of service. I plan to go down the list.
Here areStop Hitting Her: The Things I Did and Didn’t Do as a Witness to Domestic Violence other resources you can use if you ever need to help someone get out of a terrible situation:
Abusers stay in the picture by exerting their power. It’s time I exerted mine.