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Viewpoints: Stopping the cycle

December 1, 2015 Shelley Magnusson, ATA Staff Officer

It has been said that the only thing that truly matters in life is your relationships with others. But what if your relationship with your family is marred by violence? What if the people who are supposed to protect you don’t?

It is called many things: domestic violence, domestic abuse, spousal abuse, intimate partner violence, battering or family violence. But whatever we decide to call it, the sad fact is that it destroys families, weakens the fabric of our society and takes a heavy toll on our communities and our economy. And sadly, Alberta continues to lead the pack when it comes to domestic violence figures.

The numbers are scary.

Between April 2014 and March 2015, more than 10,000 women and children spent time in an Alberta emergency shelter, and more than 19,000 were turned away due to lack of space, as shown in the recent annual report of the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters.

While there were more than 13,000 domestic violence calls to Alberta police in 2014, police estimate that only 22 per cent of all domestic violence is reported. In September, the province announced an additional $15 million to fund women’s shelters in Alberta, the first increase in funding for new shelter beds since 2007.

A woman and her children who’ve experienced abuse are in the greatest danger during the first 6 to 12 months after leaving a violent partner. In fact, every hour of every day, a woman in Alberta will undergo some form of interpersonal violence from an ex-partner or ex-spouse.

Family violence creates a home environment where children live in constant fear. Think about that for a minute. We know that our bodies react to danger with a flight, fight or freeze response. Now imagine living in that state constantly.

The sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system activates the fight or flight response. It tells the heart to beat faster, the muscles to tense, the eyes to dilate and the mucous membranes to dry up — all so you can fight harder, run faster, see better and breathe easier. This response triggers in as little as one twentieth of a second — less than the time between the two thumps of a heartbeat.

The freeze response works differently. When we’re overwhelmed and we perceive that there is no hope of surviving, we tend to freeze. When this freeze response kicks in, huge amounts of neurotransmitters, hormones and painkillers flood the bloodstream.

Children who witness violence suffer the same consequences as those who are directly abused. In other words, children who witness spousal violence are experiencing a form of child abuse and may experience flashbacks and other implicit memory fragments that can continue to haunt them for years afterwards. We know that boys who witness their mother’s abuse are more likely, when they become adults, to batter their female partners than boys raised in non-­violent homes. Girls who witness their mother’s abuse may grow up to believe that threats and violence are the norm in relationships. And perhaps the most chilling of statistics is that 63 per cent of adolescent boys who have committed homicide killed their mother’s abuser.

Studies unequivocally show that the precursors of domestic violence occur in childhood and adolescence. Children and youth learn relationship skills and social behaviours from their parents and other family members. A growing body of research shows that domestic violence is often preceded by dating violence in adolescence, which is, in turn, often preceded by bullying and aggression in childhood and early adolescence. The lessons of power and bullying learned in the playground are often refined and intensified into domestic abuse in adulthood.

The negative impacts of domestic violence don’t only produce future victims and abusers, they also often produce future drug- and alcohol-addicted children, teens and adults because many who live in households with domestic violence often turn to substances to numb the hurt or to cope with the abuse.

Not all children exposed to domestic violence exhibit negative effects. Some children demonstrate enormous resiliency and use their situation as motivation to excel in school and in life. But they are the minority.

Domestic violence is a complex and intractable social problem that cannot be easily solved. By helping our young people learn positive healthy relationship skills, we can help end the cycle. As teachers, we have an opportunity to teach children every day that violence is not the only answer to a problem. We can teach our students conflict-resolution skills. We can teach them that not all families are violent. And perhaps most important of all, we can offer them a safe place — a place where they can tell their stories, a place where they will be believed. ❚

Shelley Magnusson is a former board member for the Edmonton Women’s ­Shelter and a volunteer for the Regina Crisis Line, and regularly presents on domestic ­violence at Alberta teachers’ conventions and conferences.

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