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There is nothing as traumatising for a child or children within a family than warring parents. Writing in Psychology Today, psychologist Blake Edwards argues that children exposed to domestic violence eventually experience a wide range of difficulties.

The attention given, emotions felt and memories imprinted onto a child’s brain in moments of stress become inextricably linked together to shape their future conduct. These forever taint their feelings, beliefs and choices in relationships and so many other facets of life. Thus, in spousal abuse situations, children are not merely innocent bystanders.

They are victims. Indeed, Brenda Branson of Focus on the Family affirms that more than one-third of the children who witness violence in the home demonstrate significant behaviour and/or emotional problems, including psychosomatic disorders, stuttering, anger, anxiety, bed wetting, excessive crying and problems in school.

Domestic violence

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What is absolutely frightening is that when children witness abuse, they are likely to carry the impact of their stress into society. Many resort to alcohol, drugs, sex and food to numb their feelings. Some unconsciously practice on others the violence they have observed or experienced from the abusing parent or parents. It is, therefore, not uncommon for an older child to threaten or abuse younger siblings. They may do the same at school, in the neighbourhood or in their adult lives – at work.

The implications of these observations are far reaching, especially in this season of the Covid-19 lockdown. Reports from around the world indicate that domestic violence has been on a rapid rise. In a sense, this is not totally unexpected, considering that many family members who found refuge elsewhere are now forced to stay home. In group dynamics, it has been shown that when strangers come together to form a group, it goes through about four phases of development: Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing. It would be expected that many families that have operated largely independently are experiencing similar dynamics.

Within a family set up, the Forming stage is already a given through marriage or birth. What many families are now forced to go through is the Storming phase, especially if they have not previously developed sound relationships with one another – as husband and wife, parents and children, or children among themselves. In any group setting, the Storming stage is often characterised by disunity, blaming, defensiveness, confrontation, tension and, at times, outright hostility. To successfully navigate this situation, two things are critical.

First is to acknowledge that disagreement at this stage is normal, since we are ‘strangers’ coming together into an unusual encounter. Each comes with expectations, but also with unique frustrations. Second is to appreciate the Storming is not permanent, or it does not have to be.

With some effort from each individual involved, the disagreements can be navigated and some very positive bonds cultivated. Such a disposition would readily usher the group or family into the Norming stage. Norming calls for establishing clear ground rules or norms that guide activities and communication within the home. If this is done objectively, it is just but a matter of time before the relationship grows into the Performing stage.

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In organisations and groups, the Performing stage is marked by the establishment of very structured processes and procedures to communicate, resolve conflict, allocate resources. This enables everybody to know their roles and responsibilities and reduces areas of conflict. Even though a family is not an organisation, agreeing on such little things as meal times, who washes the dishes when, who makes the bed, or even who holds the TV remote, can go a long way into building healthy relationships. Determine, at a personal level, to overlook minor offences and little irritants, and instead focus on the positive side of life.

The reality is that, a healthy family requires cultivating a conscious sense of belonging – accepting that this is my family and I cannot run away from it. Granted, Covid-19 may have locked us in with some people we would rather be far away from. But then, even inmates develop friendships. Let us stop fighting and focus our energies on surviving this pandemic.

It might just be God’s way of healing our families and building a strong next generation, devoid of domestic violence scars. Anne Mbugua – a veteran family lawyer – observes that if a marriage turns toxic, its impact can be all round devastating. And if the couple cannot call a ceasefire, there will be no winners – only losers. She cautions that even if you choose to end the marriage, your spouse, yourself and your children will emerge with battle scars that may never fade.

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