The impact of abusive relationships on youth

Child advocate at the NEST Child Advocacy Center

The Teen Maze invited seventh- through ninth-graders from Re-1, and surrounding districts to engage in a range of choices they’ll face as they navigate the most difficult period in development.

The age of fascination about relationships begins, for most, in the sixth grade. At this stage of development, their brains have been wired with information about romantic relating, and adolescence is when they put learning into practice. As a member of the Violence Prevention Coalition (VPC), I was interested to learn what teens’ experience had been around relationships. I also wanted to give them anonymity as they left marks on posters; (S) meant they had seen it, (D) indicated they done it, and (H) signaled it had happened to them.

Each poster had 4-5 examples of bad behaviors that can happen in abusive relationships. These behaviors were taken from the Teen Power and Control Wheel which depicts types of mental, emotional, and physical abuse.

The data was alarming. A total of 458 students came through the VPC room over a two-day period. The following are averages of the data collected:

cortez coloradoActs of intimidation (i.e. smashing things, using threatening looks, gestures, or actions, destroying property, displaying weapons): (S)=39%, (D)=19%, (H)=10%.

cortez coloradoIsolation or exclusion (limiting outside involvement, using jealousy to justify bad behavior, controlling where they go, what they do, who they see, or talk to): (S)=43%, (D)=18%, (H)=18%.

cortez coloradoAnger and emotional abuse (insults, put-downs, name-calling, guilt, humiliation, and mind-games): (S)=40%, (D)=25%, (H)=22%.

cortez coloradoBlame, minimizing, and denial (saying the victim caused it, saying it was just a joke, saying it didn’t happen, calling the victim “crazy” or “psycho”): (S)=36%, (D)=30%, (H)=23%.

There are things we don’t know; however, the numbers of children seeing bad behavior in relationships is a significant problem that is becoming normalized. One student going through the activity stated twice during the activity, in a very loud voice, and quite matter-of-factly, “This happens every morning in my house!”

Here’s what we do know: The impact of “witnessing relationship violence” for children can be as destructive as if they were directly assaulted, whether the attack is physical, verbal or emotional. The results for younger and older children alike can range from anxiety to PTSD. The reactions to witnessing, if left untreated, can last a lifetime. The reactions can look like many of the behaviors teachers see in their classrooms every day.

For younger children, these reactions look like guilt, shame, behavioral issues (due to the inability to express feelings verbally), withdrawal, clinging, problems with concentration, anxiety (i.e. sleep problems, eating disturbances, nightmares) and physical complaints.

For older children, it can look like: withdrawal, low self-concept, oppositional-defiant behavior in the school setting, temper-tantrums, irritability, frequent fighting at school, attempts to gain attention by threatening violence, and/or hitting or kicking.

If you are a caseworker, advocate, or educator, you’ve seen these kids. You’ve served these kids. They are the kids in various stages of fight, flight or freeze. The key is to be trauma-informed when working with children. If these numbers of kids are exposed to these behaviors, are exposed in the home, and exposed repeatedly, then we are truly missing the forest (impact of exposure to domestic violence) for the trees (test scores, and/or other related outcomes).

By the time these children reach adolescence, their behaviors look like academic failure, substance abuse, delinquency, dropping out of school and early pregnancy. Our community is certainly facing these issues. We point the finger of blame this way or that, including our teachers’ failure to educate. What I’ve learned coming out of the school setting is that some students are so traumatized by what’s going on in their daily lives that math and reading are not survival skills, and therefore, are of no use to them. I have done the research. Kids cannot grow when they are traumatized, because their resources are directed towards survival.

Before kids can learn, they must feel safe. So here is my question for our community: How can we help kids at risk feel safe? And I mean “we” as in businesses, agencies, teachers, coaches, parents, caregivers, and community members alike. With positive mentoring, safety nets for kids at risk, clubs and/or activities sponsored by businesses, positive models of working out conflict and working together, of connection rather than isolation, we can all contribute to a stronger, more cohesive and prosperous community.

To see the self-report data in full, please go to our website:

Ginger Cunliffe is a child advocate at the NEST Child Advocacy Center.. Email, or contact the NEST at 565-8155.

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