Elretha Bartlett – Counselling Psychologist

Written by Elretha Bartlett on January 28, 2021.

It was an honour to chat with Maryam Mkwanda from Salaamedia about the devastating effects domestic violence can have on young children and how it can shape their lives negatively later on.

Listen to my radio interview: The Impact of Domestic Violence on Children

Below is the transcript of the interview. Note that some answers have been shortened for reading purposes.

M: It’s true that domestic and family violence is most often violent, abusive or intimidating behaviour by a man towards a woman. But what many do not realise is that children also experience domestic violence and this affects their physical and emotional health and well-being. Joining me in studio today is Elretha Bartlett who is a Counselling Psychologist with Meaningful Minds Psychologists.

M: What short-term and long-term effects does domestic violence have on children?

E: Domestic violence is classified as a traumatic incident. In children we can see all the typical trauma symptoms. Children can experience anger outbursts, shame and guilt, confusion and a lack of security in the home environment.

It also affects their later development. In psychology we say that the first six years of a person’s life are their formative years. So things that happen during this period will have an impact on the rest of their lives, unless these issues are addressed in therapy. It affects children in many different ways:

• The kinds of partners they attract later in life
• How they behave towards their partners

Growing up we witness our parents’ relationship and this gives us an indication of what relationships look like: how I should behave towards a woman, how I should behave towards a man, what kind of behaviour I should accept from other people. So it has long-term effects. And it definitely also has an impact on their self-esteem.

M: So if there’s no intervention, can a child become an abuser or a victim of abuse?

E: Definitely. We can also look at it from a cultural perspective. What happens in the family environment creates a culture, in terms of behaviour that is accepted towards a member of the opposite sex. For instance, a young girl whose mother is a victim of domestic violence may witness her mother accepting the abuse and she [the young girl] might think, “this is probably what is expected of me as a woman, this is probably the way that men are going to behave towards me.”

Similarly, a young boy might get ideas about what it’s like to be a man in this world. It creates a specific type of masculine identity, thinking that “I must have control over my partner, otherwise I’m not much of a man.”

It [the early family environment] gives crucial messages that affect children.

M: Now that you mention it, we often find that when girls or women are recipients of abuse, they say that “he loves me; that’s why he is doing this to me. He is doing this because he wants to show me that he loves me.” And he probably also tells her that he’s doing it because he loves her.

M: Can children recover from witnessing and experiencing domestic violence or abuse?

E: Definitely, but I think it’s important for them to be taken out of that situation. If it happens at a very young age it would have a greater impact on them and it would mean that a longer-term therapy approach is needed.

So I definitely think there is hope, but it is important for them to be in a safe environment and also to be in a therapy setting where they can be contained. While children grow up, children need a lot of emotional containment. They have a lot of emotional needs. And when there’s not much space for their own emotions, it can cause them to internalise their feeling and believe that there’s no space to express anger or sadness.

The long-term impact of this is that children are more prone to experience depression and anxiety. But there is definitely hope when they are in the right therapeutic setting.

M: Can you explain to us how you would help a child in such a setting?

E: I focus on non-directive play therapy, so the focus is mainly on creating a safe, containing space where the child uses play material to process things they’ve experienced. So the play material becomes their words. An adult might talk about their emotions and experiences, but with a child, they would play it out. Often when we observe a child’s play we pick up certain themes that emerge. And it [play] is the child’s way of communicating.

M: I remember coming across a therapy session for children and they were trying to figure out what was happening in the children’s lives, and they got the children to draw. And the children drew what they were going through.
It’s interesting how there are many ways to help people to talk about their situation.

E: It’s all about processing the trauma, making sense of it, and having a safe space where there’s room for their emotions, where it’s accepted in a non-judgmental way. With non-directive therapy, I don’t direct the therapy, the child decides what he or she wants to play with. I observe, listen and I help to contain and carry the emotions for them.

M: Many mothers feel like it’s best to stay in an abusive relationship for the sake of the kids. We see it many times. Sometimes the abusers make it seem like they don’t have any other options but to stay in the abusive relationship. Should they stay for the sake of their kids?

E: It has a detrimental effect on children when mothers decide to stay. I often hear, “but I have to stay for the sake of my child; going through a divorce will have a negative impact on my child.” But being exposed to that kind of trauma has a much more detrimental impact. So I think it’s best for the mother to protect herself if she is the one who’s the victim. It’s also possible that a woman can be abusive toward a man, but 90% of victims of domestic violence are women.

E: If a mother decides to stay, she’s giving her children a very clear message that “you should also accept this”, that “this behaviour is normal”. But if she leaves, she communicates to them that she values herself enough and that “I’m not going to take this kind of behaviour.”

So I think it’s important to get out of that situation. It’s easier said than done. From my experience I’ve seen how difficult it is for women to leave those kinds of relationships. It’s much easier to say I must get away than to actually do it. A lot of women are also financially dependent on their partners.

M: If you are not in the situation, it’s easy to say, “why don’t you just get up and leave?” But how would the person just get up and leave if they are financially dependent on their abuser? Not just that, but the abuser has also brainwashed them into thinking that they have no other way out but to stay in the relationship.

I think also counselling or therapy should start with the victim of the abuse. Is there a way to help the victim of the abuse to get them out and the thinking that there is no way out for them in order to help their children?

E: Yes. Therapy would focus on empowering them, for them to realize their value and helping them to explore their resources – the things in their lives that could assist them in getting out of the relationship. It would also focus on exploring underlying thinking patterns that are keeping them stuck. For instance, thinking that, “I’ll never get anyone else or that the next person will be worse or more violent.” So the therapy would focus on empowerment and helping them to look at resources to see how to realistically make this change happen.

M: How do you help in a situation where the abuser has total control over them and their movements? They [victims of abuse] sometimes struggle to get the help they need and to see a therapist. And if the abuser finds out, it could make things worse, saying “why are you talking to people and telling them our problems?” So, how do you help them?

E: Well I would communicate that the therapy is completely confidential. They do not have to tell their partner that they are in a therapy process. It’s completely between me and them. It’s a contract between the two of us.

While they’re in the situation, it’s important to have a safety plan, even if they don’t think they’re going to leave now. If things get worse, they need to think about, “what am I going to do, where am I going to go with my children?” It’s important to do these things early on in the therapy process. It’s part of crisis management. It’s not a traditional therapy setting which just focuses on containment.

It’s a very difficult situation when there’s resistance: when a woman doesn’t want to leave, when she’s dependent on her partner, and when she’s feeling scared. The reality is that many women who have tried to leave have been in danger while trying to leave. It is a very difficult situation.

M: Especially when they take away all of the support, making the victim look as if they are the confused one, they are the insane one, they don’t know what they’re talking about.

M: Back to the children, how does domestic violence impact their education and overall wellbeing? Going to school and having to deal with violence at home must be difficult to deal with.

E: Children who grow up in these settings often feel isolated. They might feel that, “my home situation is very different from other children’s.” There might be feelings of shame which prevents them from talking about it. Perhaps there are other children who also experience the same thing, but because no-one openly speaks about it, they might feel that they are different. This can cause them to experience loneliness, anxiety, and struggles with relating to their peers.

One of the features of trauma is that it affects concentration and emotional wellbeing. When this is affected it has a negative impact on schooling. Different areas of functioning are linked. One area of their functioning is going to impact other areas.

M: If there aren’t any guidance counselors in schools, how best can you help children?

E: As a professional, it’s important to create a safe space for the child where they can trust you and tell you what’s going on. As a professional, I also need to report it. Often what happens is that a child is taken out of that setting. A social worker would get involved. It’s important to work with the victim of the abuse, to empower them to get out of the relationship.

M: And how do you help as a parent and victim of abuse?

E: Try and leave the situation with your child. It gives them the message that “we can’t accept this and we need to leave the situation.” Give them a safe space to process everything, where they can talk about how it has affected them and to not judge the emotions as good or bad, but just to accept them as a normal response to what they’ve been exposed to.

M: Do you think that activism helps?

E: I think it plays a helpful role though it’s not the only solution. It gives the message to society that we have a problem, that we have a large number of violence and abuse cases, and this is something we need to be aware of. It sends a message that it’s not ok and that it’s a societal problem. Something that needs to be addressed and looked at.

If you are experiencing domestic abuse or know of a child who is in a home environment that is violent or abusive, please reach out by contacting me.

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March 1, 2021

Very good post. I am dealing with a few of these issues as well.. Anabel Manolo Ebner

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Elretha Bartlett

march 2, 2021

Thank you Anabel. I hope you are receiving help to work through it?
Regards, Elretha

Elretha Bartlett – Counselling Psychologist

Elretha Bartlett


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