Boy to Man: The Cycle of Abuse

Domestic violence damages relationships. Any child witnessing abuse of a parent or being abused themselves suffers long-term consequences. Witnessing domestic violence emotionally abuses the child, so they suffer even if they are not hit themselves.

The Risks of Exposure Crisis Center, a national help center for victims of abuse, states that 7 percent of children are at risk of abuse. If domestic violence is present in the home, that risk rises to between 49 percent and 70 percent, depending upon other factors. The risk of becoming an abuser themselves is higher for men than for women.

Children experiencing domestic violence also suffer neglect as the male dominant personality pushes their needs to the background. The dysfunctional home life is carried through into adulthood and becomes the pattern upon which their future relationships and family are mapped. The emotional damage caused by learned interaction of abuse and violence inhibits the ability to create and sustain healthy relationships. Boys see their father beat their mother, and the pattern is set for them to become abusers.

Perpetuating Abuse

Men are socialised to be strong and on average are physically more powerful and larger than their girlfriend or wife. As children, men are taught to fight back if faced with violence and that to exhibit emotions is not a masculine trait. Although women are conditioned to passive acquiescent femininity, men are conditioned to active action. As children, this is not possible, but as adults, they have the size, strength, and ability to act.

Childhood immersion in domestic violence normalizes them to violence, and boys learn violence is an expected and natural part of a relationship. The victim of the violence becomes responsible for their victimization, and violence is seen as an inevitable result of anger and disobedience. Their mother is seen as submissive and obedient and becomes responsible for her victimization, whereas their father is seen as providing necessary discipline and control. The boy will learn that domestic violence is wrong only by example.

Dysfunctional family patterns are created within domestic violence situations. There is significantly higher probability of drug or alcohol abuse and of concurrent poverty and neglect. The child of such a situation becomes educationally and nutritionally disadvantaged as well as emotionally damaged. Forming and sustaining healthy relationships becomes increasingly problematic.

The adults in abusive relationships often believe their child is not aware of the violence. However, research by Crisis Connection Inc. showed that 90 percent of children living with violence were fully aware. Those children are also likely to act out such violence in their own relationships in school or at play. Male children of violent relationships are likely to become physically violent bullies in peer situations such as at school or clubs. They will display signs of being manipulative and coercive and will have a notably reduced ability to empathise.

Stopping the Cycle

Exposure to abuse in childhood does not make it inevitable that a man will become an abuser in adulthood. To end the cycle, he will need to seek help in addressing the affects of the abuse suffered. Counseling and therapy will teach the life skills required in controlling his emotions and actions appropriately and also how to recognise his personal triggers for provoking violence, equipping him to learn not to react violently to those triggers.

Alcohol and substance abuse are common in domestic violence relationships. Children will often develop similar addictions as those of their parents and will start the path to addiction in young adolescence. Such addiction is significant in whether the abuse is perpetuated. Seeking help for such addictions is an essential step in stopping the cycle.

It is vital to step in and question the situation if one notices signs of possible abuse. Asking a child if they are okay and if they have worries about home helps the child to open up about their fears and to understand the abuse is not acceptable. The roles of peers, family, and teachers in showing concern, providing alternative examples, in caring, and in teaching that domestic violence is not normal or acceptable will help break the cycle.

Child Help, the national help service for children of domestic violence that can be contacted at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453), states that only 30 percent of child survivors of domestic violence become abusers themselves. To break the cycle, adult survivors will need to learn what are recognised as appropriate child behaviors. Parenting classes will help teach skills such as recognizing reasons for babies crying, at what age children can understand levels of instruction, and appropriate forms of discipline. It takes time, but with help and guidance the cycle can end.