Wall art in the Joy House playroom.

Brenda Johnson, MA, LPC, RPT-S, NCC
Joy House Counseling Co-Director

“Daddy’s mean!” 

These two words powerfully sum up the reality of a 3-year old girl who recently moved into Joy House with her mother after fleeing a domestic violence relationship.  In three short years, this little girl’s reality has been one of fear, uncertainty, and violence.  

I have heard it mentioned often from the mothers of such children that their son or daughter did not directly witness the violence – the mother had either been pregnant with the child at the time, or the child was asleep when the violence occurred, or the child was away at school.  

The reality is that the child witnessing the domestic violence, even indirectly, is actually impacted more than the victim due to the mirroring neurons being activated in the child’s brain. Mirroring neurons are a group of cells that allows a child to imitate the actions and emotions of others, especially their caretakers, so they will respond not only to their own internal states at the moment of violence, but also to the actions and emotional states of other people.  

Dr. Byron Norton, author, researcher, and play therapist supervisor, states, “Children do not witness domestic violence.  They endure it.”  

Norton explains that the victim of domestic violence (the mother) can numb or dissociate during the trauma, but the child has no defense against the impact because the child’s mirroring neurons are firing, and the child is feeling every blow that is being inflicted on the mother. 

Whether they saw it, heard it, or felt it, these children live in a chronic state of stress with parents who are unable or unavailable to help regulate and calm their internal experience. 

According to Psychology Today, the psychological aftermath is daunting: These children grow up with excessive anxiety and/or depression; they often struggle with an array of academic, behavioral, and relational issues; and they become at risk for aggression, suicide, and substance abuse.  

In fact, recent studies have found that more than 2/3 of mass shootings are connected in some way with domestic violence (efsgv.org).  As we take a closer look at the reality of domestic violence in our community, we are forced to recognize the hard truth that these children are never merely bystanders.  

They, too, are victims, and they are crying out for help! Children’s play therapy can help them find healing.