South Africa tops many global lists as one of the countries with the highest rates of physical and sexual intimate partner violence (IPV). In recent years, there has been a call to better understand the effects and actively address the issue of infants and children in their early developmental years witnessing these visceral forms of conflict at home.
The impacts of IPV on a young child’s development and ability to grapple with their surroundings could be major and may be carried far into their adulthood. Greater support is needed for children who are affected by the trauma of witnessing their home realities.
Intimate partner violence in South Africa
South Africa has long suffered the plaguing problem of IPV. Sadly, the numbers have failed to drop despite attempts to raise awareness of domestic violence, which is predominantly aimed at women and children. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated risk factors for domestic violence, such as unemployment and food insecurity. This ultimately added to the perpetuated cycle of violence that has proven extremely difficult to break.
An extreme rate of 50% of girls and women over the age of 15 in South Africa have experienced some form of IPV, be it physical, emotional, or sexual. This is almost double the global percentage (27%). Socio-economic intervention is desperately needed to reduce risk factors and work towards breaking generational violence.
Witnesses of crime
Many (too many) South African infants and young children are witnessing IPV in their homes. While some of these violent acts may not necessarily be directed at children, the importance of understanding how exposure to assault affects their development is becoming increasingly apparent and urgent.
Not only is the visual trauma of being a bystander to IPV a major issue, but so is the direct influence IPV has on the fulfilment of children’s fundamental needs for healthy development, such as nurture, safety, and food. Victims of IPV are likely deficient in the means to provide these after a violent episode and will not be able to offer the guidance necessary to help their children regulate after what they have seen or heard. This vulnerability opens the door to myriad negative effects on the social, emotional, and even cognitive aspects of a young child’s growth.
Effects of IPV on infants and young children
A mini review performed in 2019, identified evidence for several areas of negative impact on foetuses, infants, and preschoolers in home situations unsettled by IPV. Repercussions of IPV exposure include:
- Higher susceptibility to stress later in life as well as slower rates of recovery after experiencing a stressor. This is a result of heightened levels of cortisol reaching the foetus during pregnancy.
- Eating problems, sleep disturbances, and tumultuous moods.
- Temporary losses of developmental skills like language or toilet training.
- Distressed behaviour patterns.
- Symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Low self-esteem and self-assurance.
- A poor sense of security and trust in safety.
- The inability to self-regulate.
- Raised attention towards stimuli that pose a threat. This may lead to general anxiety, social withdrawal, and depression.
- Lower IQ levels.
- Affected cognitive functionality, such as memory.
- A lack of problem-solving skills.
A stunting of these areas of development is frequently paired with adverse cognitive reasoning:
Internalising unhealthy relationship patterns
By growing accustomed to abusive conduct among caregivers or family members, young children may expect mistreatment within the relationships they form outside of their home situations. In severe cases, they themselves may even normalise acting out such behaviour towards those they love.
Falsely taking on the blame for violence
In an attempt to make sense of the unjust violence they are witnessing, children often convince themselves that they are the cause. This can majorly influence their psychology as they grow up.
Maladaptive coping mechanisms
Learning how to self-regulate involves developing coping mechanisms that help to overcome situations of being faced with stress or trauma. Children exposed to IPV from an early age tend to develop maladaptive coping mechanisms, such as manipulation and excessive attention-seeking, which are harmful, rather than helpful. These mechanisms may later lead to a higher susceptibility to giving into peer pressure, abusing drugs, engaging in unsafe sexual behaviour, or being victims and/or perpetrators of bullying.
Lying and defensive behaviour
To avoid feeling shame, guilt, or embarrassment, children may fall into patterns of lying or rigid defensiveness. This highly affects their ability to sincerely relate to others and may lead to social isolation and stormy relationships.
Offering safety and rebuilding trust
Children who have been exposed to or who repeatedly witness IPV in their homes most importantly require spaces where they can feel safe. Innovative solutions for creating these spaces in order to rekindle a sense of security and trust are needed to help children strengthen the developmental skills that are drastically impacted by their experiences of violence. Moreso, caregivers and parents who fall victim to IPV need to be supported and equipped with the tools to protect themselves as well as this vulnerable period in the lives of their young ones.
While discussions around IPV in South Africa rightly focus on aiding those in the direct line of fire, there exists an obligation to equally consider the impact of IPV on its youngest witnesses. In this article, we shared some of the developmental effects on infants and small children exposed to IPV in their homes, an area which requires more consideration and research, especially in light of the consistent levels of violence the country is battling to shake. Original approaches are required to establish spaces where young ones are able to build the skills needed to successfully carry them through the rest of their lives.
Innovation Edge exists to offer start-up funds for testing innovative ideas aimed at filling gaps in early childhood development (ECD) in South Africa. We believe that every child has the right to realise the full potential of their earliest years of life. Contact us or consider our investment criteria if you have a novel idea for bridging a chasm in realising healthy ECD.