Matt was just sixteen when the toll of years of domestic violence in his home finally reached a crescendo of pain and confusion. For his entire childhood, Matt witnessed his mother’s violence against his father. He also experienced physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse due to his mother’s undiagnosed mental illness.
The utility drawer in the kitchen was the most feared place in the house. It held a variety of knives and tools that his mother routinely used to threaten Matt’s father, and at times, even Matt and his siblings. On one occasion, Matt’s father came home from work for a dinner break. On the counter sat a two-pound package of frozen hamburger that his mom intended to use for dinner. She had forgotten to remove it from the freezer in time, so dinner wasn’t ready. His father didn’t mind—it was worth anything to keep the peace—but as usual, something angered Matt’s mother, and violence soon followed.
In this case, Matt’s father decided the best option for all involved was for him to simply head back to work. He walked toward the door to make a hasty retreat. As he left, the screen door closed behind him just in time to protect him from the frozen package of hamburger that his wife launched toward his head. The glass on the door was not so lucky. It shattered under the impact.
Sometimes Matt’s mom would pin his father in a corner and begin to scratch his face with her fashionably long fingernails. His dad was not one to fight back—he would never hit a woman. The best he could do was try to restrain her hands until he could find a way to escape without having to physically assault or remove her.
At times, the situation was so dire that Matt’s mother threatened to kill him and his siblings.
The abuse damaged Matt’s psyche, in spite of the positive influence of his grandparents and a close group of supportive friends that Matt depended on over the years. Matt grew up in the church and had a profound sense at some level that there was a God, somewhere, who cared about him. The problem was, this God had subjected him—or so he thought—to a horrific existence that had resulted in chronic anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and other unwanted constant emotional and spiritual companions.
It was a hot summer night when the pressures of Matt’s hopeless life climaxed. His precious grandmother, who was his emotional support base, had recently passed away from heart disease. Within weeks of that loss, a girl Matt was convinced he would marry one day moved with her family back to Texas. At the same time, the abuse and violence in his home continued, with no apparent resolution in sight.
Shortly after sunset, Matt climbed up on the hood of his old Jeep Wagoneer, determined that this was the end. As Matt sat on the hood of the Jeep, parked on the curb of a busy street, he decided that at the right time, in the dark of the night, he would roll off the hood and in front of the next oncoming car.
For some reason, the traffic that night was unusually slow, giving Matt time to consider his plan. During this silent time of reflection, Matt stared at the stars and began to wonder about the reality of God. He was suddenly at a crossroads of eternal proportion. God, either You’re real and You are Who You say You are, Matt thought, or You’re a fraud, and I need to end this insanity.
The teenager began to hope that no cars would drive by until he had a chance to think through the implications of the decision before him. Finally, he brought his dilemma to God. God, if You’re real, I’ll trust that You can get me through this, but I need You to speak to me. Slowly, peace began to fill Matt’s heart. Because he had climbed onto the Jeep thinking death was his most appealing option, he credits the peace he felt to an outside source. “God gave me just enough grace in that moment to stay put on the car,” Matt says as he looks back on that day. “The God I believed in intellectually became real to me that night in a spiritual sense. The abuse didn’t stop. And the baggage it left scars me to this day. But I know that when a person reaches the end, they can find God there, if they really look.”
If the harsh realities of a fallen world can plant thoughts of despair, hopelessness, and self-harm even in the hearts and minds of children raised in healthy surroundings, what’s the outlook for a child whose entire view of life has been shaped in the crucible of domestic violence? As this story shows, there’s a very real link between domestic violence and suicide. Multiple studies indicate that domestic violence survivors experience suicidal thoughts at a dramatically higher rate than the rest of us.
To complicate matters, kids and teens who find the courage to come forward with information about the abuse and violence they’ve witnessed or experienced at home may not feel comfortable disclosing their deepest feelings. Those who do admit to having suicidal thoughts don’t always connect them with their upbringing.
Domestic Violence: What Is It, Really?
Before moving forward, we need to know exactly what we’re talking about. One of the biggest problems with domestic violence is that many of its victims don’t realize what’s happening to them. Time and time again a woman—or, in some cases, a man—who suffers at the hands of an abusive spouse will say, “He’s never hit me, so I guess his behavior can’t be described as violent.” Sometimes she’ll make excuses for him: “He’s just mean or grumpy,” or “He’s having a bad day.” All too often she’ll actually blame herself, usually at his instigation. Whatever the details of the case, the result is usually the same: she persuades herself that the situation is no big deal and fails to see what’s really going on.
Pay close attention to this next sentence: Domestic violence is not limited to physically hitting. Domestic violence is all about power and control. So in addition to hitting, it includes
- aggressive behaviors such as screaming, yelling, and throwing objects across the room.
- intimidating, bullying, and destroying a spouse’s possessions.
- calling a spouse names, demeaning a spouse privately or in front of others, even if claimed to be said “in jest.”
- controlling the finances so a spouse doesn’t have access to money.
- using coercion or threats (to divorce, take the kids away, stop working, etc.).
- isolating or restricting who a spouse’s friends are and when the spouse can and can’t see them.
- demanding accountability for everything done and every place visited.
- minimizing and/or denying negative actions and their impact.
- blaming the spouse for the anger, violence, selfishness, and irrational behaviors.
- telling the children that the spouse is a bad parent and blaming that spouse for the family’s problems.
- using his maleness or her femaleness as a privilege over the spouse.
Domestic violence can be any behavior that attempts to manipulate, control, or exert power over a spouse.
Impact on Kids
So how does domestic violence affect children—especially in connection to suicidal tendencies? It’s worth noting that in several states, violence between two adults in the home is now legally defined as a form of child abuse. There are a couple of very good reasons for this.
First, kids who are exposed to violent behavior in the home are in danger of becoming emotionally scarred. It’s easy for a victimized parent to ignore the tremendous negative impact domestic violence can have on a child. Children living in abusive homes are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, academic struggles, behavioral problems, difficulty sleeping, and all kinds of chronic health issues.
Second, it has long been understood that domestic violence is a learned behavior. If your home is violent and abusive, your children are highly likely to repeat the behaviors they’ve witnessed there. That’s because domestic violence is generally picked up through observation, experience, reinforcement, culture, family, and community. It’s not caused by substance abuse, genetics, stress, anger, illness, economic hardship, or marital problems. This is one of the reasons domestic violence crosses socioeconomic lines and even occurs with great frequency in the church, where it is said to affect one in four domestic relationships.
A Setup for Suicide
Clearly, domestic violence is bad for kids. In addition, there are specific ways in which exposure to domestic violence can steer kids in the direction of taking their own lives. The connection between being a victim of domestic violence and developing a suicidal mentality is very real. Consider the following ways kids can think when they’re in this type of situation.
I don’t deserve to live. When a child grows up seeing his father abuse his mother or hearing him say things like, “I’m gonna kill you . . . and the kids,” it’s easy for him to internalize the idea that he’s worthless. Dad hates me, he thinks. I guess I should never have been born.
I don’t want to grow up to be like Dad. A genuine anxiety of reduplicating the sins of the father can induce some young people to bail out on life altogether.
I feel helpless and hopeless. Some kids come through an experience of domestic violence feeling like complete failures. I couldn’t protect Mom, she thinks, and I couldn’t protect myself. It’s a hopeless situation.
I’m walking on eggshells. People who live in environments where dangerous outbursts of anger are common learn to live in a state of constant dread and anxiety. This can lead to the abandonment of all hope for a better future.
It’s making other problems worse. Violence in the home is the direct enemy of strong attachment and a sense of security. It sets kids up for a life of anxiety and an obsession with survival. If other problems are present—such as depression, OCD, ADHD, or learning disabilities— domestic violence will only make matters worse.
I want to escape. Add it all up, and you have a situation guaranteed to inspire thoughts of escape. Since teenagers, developmentally speaking, are highly self-centered in their outlook, they’re not particularly inclined to give much thought to how their “escape plan” might affect others. All they can think about is finding a way out. In a life dominated by domestic violence, they can see suicide as an attractive option.
Devising an Effective Response
Kids raised in an abusive environment are in grave danger on a number of fronts. As a parent, it’s your job to protect them. That includes doing everything you can to prevent them from developing a suicidal mentality. If anything we’ve said sounds reminiscent of your situation at home, take decisive action as soon as possible. Your attitude toward domestic violence must be one of zero tolerance. The basic approach is safety first. If you’re facing imminent danger or have just experienced physical harm, call 911 without delay. Let the police intervene and allow the process to unfold from there.
“But I can’t leave,” you might say. “God says He hates divorce.”
Yes, God does hate divorce, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about getting yourself and your children to safety even when the person doing the harm is your spouse. Getting to a safe place is not the same as divorce. The book of Proverbs talks a lot about staying away from dangerous people, and none of the verses say, “P.S. Except in the case of your spouse.”
If you have any reason to believe that your partner may be on the verge of a violent explosion, your first concern is to get yourself and your kids to a safe location. It might also be wise to check with an attorney about the implications of leaving your home for an extended period of time. In some states you could experience unexpected difficulties if the reason for this action is undocumented.
Once you and your children are safe, take immediate action. Explain to your spouse in clear and certain terms that his or her behavior is unacceptable and that you won’t put up with it anymore. Insist that your spouse seek professional help. Create a crisis by giving him or her an ultimatum. Say something like, “Either we get counseling, or I’m staying away until you’re ready to resolve this problem.” Separation may be what it takes to open your spouse’s eyes to what he or she is doing.
Have a Plan
Naturally, you’ll want to make sure that your support system is in place before you take any such step. If you’re going to leave, you need someplace to go—the home of a friend, family member, or neighbor. You’ll need money or access to funds. Figure out your plans, line up resources, and make arrangements before you pack your bags and walk out the door.
It would also be a good idea to seek help from a professional counselor. A therapist who is specifically trained in the area of domestic violence can help you recognize to what extent you may have become brainwashed by your spouse’s behavior. It’s common for someone being abused to accept his or her lot in life. It would be ideal, of course, if your spouse or partner sought counseling as well, but we don’t recommend that the two of you do this jointly, at least not in the beginning. It’s far too easy for an abusive spouse to manipulate a couple’s counseling situation and turn it to his or her own advantage.
Connecting the Dots
The links between domestic violence and suicide are clear. If you know of a young person who’s experiencing violence in his home, it will be difficult to get him into professional counseling without his parent’s involvement. But you can encourage him to talk with the school counselor, his youth pastor, or (if there is one) the law enforcement officer on his school campus.
In the meantime, strengthen your own relationship with him and encourage him to establish other solid connections with healthy adult role models. Don’t be afraid to talk with young people openly about the threat of suicide. Remember: people who are contemplating the possibility of taking their own lives often feel relieved that someone cares enough to ask about their feelings.
In your relationship, has your spouse, significant other, or dating partner
___ screamed, yelled, or thrown objects across the room or at you?
___ intimidated, bullied you, blocked you from leaving the room, or destroyed your possessions?
___ called you names, humiliated you, demeaned you privately or in front of others (even if saying it was just “in jest”)?
___ controlled the finances so you don’t have free access to money? coerced, manipulated, or threatened—to divorce, take the kids away, stop working, etc.?
___ manipulated circumstances in order to isolate you or leave you with no means of transportation?
___ restricted who your friends are and when you can or can’t spend time with them?
___ demanded an accounting for everything you do, every place you go, and every dollar you spend?
___ minimized and/or denied his or her negative actions toward you or the impact they had on you?
___ blamed you for his or her anger, violent outbursts, selfishness, and irrational behaviors?
___ told the children that you are a bad parent and blamed you for the family’s problems in front of the children?
___ used the Bible to tell you how you should be acting as a spouse, to accuse you of being a bad Christian, or to wonder if you’re truly saved?
Look over this list. If you marked even one thing—yes, even one—you need to stop and take note. What does this show you about the relationship you’re in? Could you possibly be in a violent domestic relationship and haven’t recognized it? Or do you recognize it but feel compelled to stay because of your faith or because of the conviction that your kids need two parents at home?
There’s zero tolerance for domestic violence, even in Christian families. Seek out help now. Contact a counselor who understands domestic violent relationships or contact your local Center for Prevention of Domestic Violence. Do this for your sake—and especially for your kids’ sake.