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Children of Trauma Face Their Own Struggles

According to studies, children of holocaust survivors have reported feeling lonely, confused and burdened by their parent’s trauma, due to communication that is often avoided in lieu of reliving horrific events. Studies also indicate that children of survivor families are more likely to develop depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.

Kara Uy is a domestic violence counselor at the Asian Woman’s Home, in Santa Clara county, California. She said recently that more than half of school-aged children in domestic violence shelters show clinical levels of anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Without treatment, these children are at significant risk for delinquency, substance abuse, school drop-out, and difficulties in their own relationships,” the Cambodian American social worker told VOA Khmer at her office in San Jose.

As a family counselor at a residential domestic violence shelter and an active volunteer in the community, Kara Uy has worked with many families from all walks of life, under many circumstances.

“The pattern that I see most prevalent among these families is the cycle of domestic violence that stems from psychological and environmental factors,’’ she said. “I think almost all survivors that I’ve worked with have expressed that their mother or primary guardian raised them in an environment where abuse was tolerated. And many have also conveyed the deep-rooted affects of impaired self-esteem, anxiety and also depression. With domestic violence victims that I work with, many have mentioned that they’ve noticed unhealthy patterns of behaviors in their own children.”

While many sons were emulating abusive behaviors of their fathers, daughters began to relate to them with alarming ease, she said. Studies show that 50 percent of boys raised in abusive homes become abusive themselves, but 60 percent of girls become victims themselves.

“Children may exhibit a wide range of reactions to exposure to violence in their home,” said Vinita Kylin, Cambodian liaison for Franklin McKinley School District in Santa Clara. “Younger children do not understand the meaning of the abuse they observe and tend to believe that they must have done something wrong.”

Self-blame can precipitate feelings of guilt, worry and anxiety. Children, especially younger children, typically do not have the ability to adequately express their feelings verbally. Consequently, the manifestation of their emotions is often behavioral. Children may become withdrawn and non-verbal and exhibit regressed behaviors, such as clinging and whining. Eating and sleeping difficulty, concentration problems, generalized anxiety, and physical complaints such as headaches are all common.

“The pre-adolescent child typically has a greater ability to externalize negative emotions,” Reaksmie Om, a case manager for domestic violence programs in Long Beach, Calif., said. “In addition to symptoms commonly seen with childhood anxiety, sleep problems, eating disturbances and nightmares, victims within this age group may show a loss of interest in social activities, low self-concept, rebelliousness and oppositional-defiant behavior in the school settings.”

It is also common to observe bad temper, irritability, frequent fighting at school or between siblings, lashing out at objects, threatening of siblings with violence, and attempts to gain attention through hitting and kicking.

Incidentally, girls are more likely to exhibit withdrawal and, unfortunately, run the risk of being missed as a child in need of support.

“Adolescents are at risk of academic failure, school drop-out, delinquency, and substance abuse,” said Sony Pream, a domestic violence program coordinator in Long Beach. “Some investigators have suggested that a history of family violence or abuse is the most significant difference between delinquent and non-delinquent youth.”

For some children questions about home life may be difficult to answer, especially if the individual has been warned or threatened by a family member to refrain from talking to teachers about events that have taken place in the family when there is suggestion of domestic violence with a student, consider involving the school psychologist, social worker, guidance counselor and/or a school administrator.

“Although the circumstances surrounding each case may vary, suspicion of child abuse is required to be reported to the local child protection agency by teachers and other school personnel,” Vinita added. “In some cases, a contact with the local police department may also be necessary. When in doubt, consult with school team members.”

Children exposed to domestic violence often suffer psychological and behavioral difficulties that if left untreated can severely impact their lives and may ultimately result in the perpetuating of an intergenerational cycle of violence. With help, many children can be saved from a downward spiral. Community leaders, particularly police chiefs and mental health service directors, must help.

Kara Uy said working with diverse groups and helping people rebuild lives free of violence has prepared her to be adaptive and versatile. And she said such appalling statistics have really stirred her interests in a possible doctoral dissertation focusing on disorders in children raised in unstable environments and in families with a history of trauma, which is very common in Cambodian community because many suffered from the Khmer Rouge period and the war.