AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) – Every October one of the topics on so many people’s minds is domestic violence, since October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. That often has us thinking about the victims, the survivors, legislation, and resources to help. There is another group, though, that isn’t often talked about, and that’s kids. So this week we sit down with Dr. Dale Peeples, a child psychologist, to discuss the long term and short term impacts on kids, and how we can help.
Brad Means: Let’s kick it off with domestic violence awareness. And we thought we would take sort of a different angle this time around and look at the impact that it has on children and who better to break that down for us than Augusta University’s pediatric psychiatrist, Dr. Dale Peeples, a frequent guest of the Means Report from MCG at AU. Dr. Peeples, thanks for coming back.
Dr. Dale Peeples: I’m happy to be here again. Thank you.
Brad Means: Are you sorry that you came on the Means Report many years ago, because I think ever since your first appearance, you’re on Channel 6, like once a week.
Dr. Dale Peeples: Consider y’all family. Invite me anytime. I’m happy to be here.
Brad Means: Same here, same here. Let’s talk about domestic violence and children. And I was wondering, as I thought about our time together, how young a child is, how old a child is when they first start to notice domestic violence, you would think like babies wouldn’t notice, a one-year-old might not notice, when do they know, hey something’s not right in my house.
Dr. Dale Peeples: Right yeah. You know, I think there’s a couple ways we could think about that question. The first is, you know, how you frame it that you know, when is a child gonna be able to put these pieces together that something’s not right? And you know, it is gonna be in those early toddler years, you know, round two or so, when, you know, they’re able to witness it and kind of express that, you know, this is, you know, a bad thing. Now you can also think about it as, you know, when is the impact of all this gonna be noticed on a child’s development? And that really goes far, far younger. You could even make the case that, you know, if there’s a domestic violence occurring during pregnancy, it’s gonna influence the outcomes for that child. So, you know, I don’t think that there’s an age where, you know, you’re young enough to be completely protected. But,
Brad Means: Are you talking about when you say influencing the outcomes for that child from a physical standpoint, that the child may be hurt before they’re delivered, or that they hear what’s happening?
Dr. Dale Peeples: Well, you know, the mother experiencing the abuse is going to experience a degree of stress herself. And, you know, that’s gonna influence, you know, hormones in the body, stress related hormones, cortisol levels, that again, the child is gonna be exposed to all that as well too. So, you know, the mom being in a state of stress and, you know, poor health is going to impact that child’s development.
Brad Means: Do there have to be a certain number of incidents perhaps before a child notices or feels the effects? Do there have to be a certain number of fights, you know, could the abusers get away with one or two before it starts to be noticed?
Dr. Dale Peeples: Yeah, you know, every child’s gonna be a little different, of course, and what seems to be the most predictive of negative outcomes for kids is going to be the severity of the violence. So it’s not even that the child witnessed the violence, but when you know, there’s a, you know, significant threat of injury, you know, are the mother, you know, the spouse is significantly injured and the child is able to, you know, hear about what happened, you know, that tends to have the most impact on kids.
Brad Means: Okay, you just answered my next question, which is, proximity to the event, to the violence, doesn’t matter necessarily for it to have an impact.
Dr. Dale Peeples: Right, right. You know, definitely. I mean, these are, you know, instances we want to shield children from. We don’t want ’em to see it. But again, just being in that environment, seeing the fallout that the, you know, the abused parent is having to deal with, you know, hearing what happened, that in and of itself is a risk factor for these kids.
Brad Means: What are some of the responses a child might have right there in the moment? I would think go hide under the bed. What might a child do?
Dr. Dale Peeples: Yeah. You know, it is gonna push kids into sort of a fight or flight option, right. So, like you said, you know, trying to get away from it, trying to hide, trying to, you know, pretend it’s, you know, not happening. You know, those can be normal responses. At the same time, you are gonna see some children try to rise to defend the parent and might, you know, begin to act out aggressively as well.
Brad Means: Does a child’s relationship with their parents matter when it comes to their ability to rebound and heal from witnessing domestic violence in the house? And that could cut two ways. First of all, if you have a great relationship with your parents and they have a really horrible fight once maybe the family gets back together because it was one and done. However also, if you’re used to there being nothing but fighting in your household, maybe you’re so numb to it, you can heal that way too.
Dr. Dale Peeples: Right. Yeah when we’re looking at resiliency, you know, positive outcomes for kids who find themselves in these, you know, tough situations, one of the big predictors is that attachment, that strong attachment, particularly to mom, tends to be the most protective. So having a good positive relationship with one parent, particularly mom is protective, also extended family, having grandparents, aunts, uncles that can model positive relationships for you and provide that support for you, that’s also really protective for these kids too.
Brad Means: All right, let me ask you a two part question on how we should respond. First of all, we as citizens of the world, what should we do if we suspect domestic violence is occurring to help that child and to protect that child? And I’m talking maybe when I picture we, a teacher, somebody at church, somebody who interacts with the child. What’s our response?
Dr. Dale Peeples: Right, social isolation is a strong risk factor. So having a community around a child that cares about them and protects them is going to be helpful. You know, so we can help out, you know, providing, you know, families with connection, you know, helping, you know, meet their basic needs. Oftentimes these families are under economic pressure, you know, they might need assistance with, you know, food or, you know, bills with the, you know, scenario like you bring up with a teacher. You know, you’ll see that about 30 to 70% of kids who are witnessing domestic violence may also be the victims of domestic violence. So certainly if you had a suspicion that, you know, a child is being abused, then there is obviously a duty to report, you know, contacting social services, DFCS in Georgia, DSS in South Carolina.
Brad Means: From your experience, are they pretty good about responding if I say, hey something’s going wrong next door, am I gonna see folks come over to that house and check.
Dr. Dale Peeples: Yeah, they’ll take a look into it now, you know, again, they’re gonna be a little bit more driven to action when, you know, the safety of the child is, you know, clearly at risk.
Brad Means: Dr. Peeples, what should we do when we see a child getting spanked and we suspect it’s risen to the level of abuse in the grocery store. It happens all the time. I’ll see a parent clench a child’s arm way too hard, and it’s all I can do not to go, hey man, lighten up on the child. What do we do in that moment?
Dr. Dale Peeples: That’s a tough one. You know, you always, you know, have to be cautious that a situation doesn’t escalate. None of us are worth looking for, you know, confrontation with a individual. But you know, we’ve got social norms. We are a community and, you know, expressing that that’s not okay by inquiring to the child if they’re right and if they need assistance, could both signal to the parent that again, this was a little bit out of bounds also
Brad Means: And that we see you.
Dr. Dale Peeples: Yeah. And also, you know, let the child know that, you know, there is support for them there.
Brad Means: Okay, that’s great advice cause that’s a real tough situation when you find yourself in it at the store. Let me ask you about the children themselves and how they can be helped. When they come to you, who brings them to you typically? One of those agencies you mentioned DFCS, Social Services?
Dr. Dale Peeples: Well, you know, a lot of times it is, you know, families, you know, there are families where, you know, these problems come up and you know, as you indicated before, you know, sometimes you know, it’s a one off incident or you know, it’s not, you know, a pervasive pattern. And there’s other families that although they’re seeking help, they might be at a point where, you know, the marriage is, you know, beginning to separate, you know, so many times it is with families, but you know, sometimes it is a kid who’s been taken out of the home and is with the foster family and in social services.
Brad Means: I think I ask you this, no matter the mental health situation, but when it comes to children who are impacted by domestic violence abuse, how long until you can help them feel better?
Dr. Dale Peeples: Well, you know, kids are resilient and development is on our side. I like to think my patients do a lot of the work themselves and I’m just there kind of, you know, lending a hand on the way, you know, when we begin to, you know, minimize that exposure to violence, I think, you know, you can really see, you know, benefits right away.
Brad Means: Right.
Dr. Dale Peeples: That being said, you know, kids are likely gonna be dealing with this, you know, throughout the course of their development. And as life moves on, it might manifest itself in different ways. So, you know, your younger kid who doesn’t have the emotional vocabulary, they might be complaining of stomach aches, headaches.
Brad Means: That’s right.
Dr. Dale Peeples: Kid gets a little bit older then they start blaming themselves, oh it was my fault that mom and dad were arguing. Teenager might worry about, you know, is this pattern gonna continue in my relationships? And they might have some fear about, you know, forming those, you know, close, intimate connections, you know, as they go forward in life. So, you know, sometimes it is working with kids with where they’re at and you know, trying to address those issues.
Brad Means: One quick question. I have about 20 seconds left. Does part of that therapy include how teaching your patients not to become abusers when they grow up?
Dr. Dale Peeples: Yeah, definitely, you know, trying to, you know, positively handle a conflict in a prosocial manner, you know, that you know, a hundred percent is gonna be part of it.
Brad Means: Well, you do such great work and you’re so helpful to us to help us understand it all and I appreciate you Dr. Peeples.
Dr. Dale Peeples: Well thanks for having me. Always happy to be here
Brad Means: Absolutely. Dr. Dale Peeples from the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University Pediatric Psychiatrist.