His rage was never far from the surface. Dinner was served too early. Dinner was served too late. The house wasn’t clean enough. It didn’t take much to set him off.
The children knew to disappear when he got ”that look”. They’d feared their father’s violent mood swings since they were toddlers. But on this day, something snapped in 11-year-old Jack*.
”His father was screaming, ‘Clean up this f—ing pigsty’, and he’d run off to hide. I sent my daughter to her bedroom and my husband followed her and physically pulled her out of bed. I tried to stop him and my son appeared from nowhere and just stood in the doorway between us. He was yelling, ‘Leave her alone and leave my mum alone’. He went from being a frightened little boy, hiding, to being my protector. That’s when I knew we had to leave. We packed the car and left that night.”
”He’d call me a lying, stealing, maggot c— and tell me he was going to take the kids and I’d never see them again. It broke every single part of me.
”He was just constantly battering and beating me down. While my daughter would be in the bed with me sleeping, he would climb on top of me knowing that I wouldn’t have screamed because she was there. He’d tell me that he would break me before he’d let me go.”
Witnessing the abuse left an indelible mark on Jack*, who was 11, and Mia*, eight, when they fled the family home with their mother 3½ years ago. Jack retreated into silence, consumed by worry about being his family’s provider. His sister began self-harming. She was prone to fits of uncontrollable rage.
Their reaction is increasingly common, according to child development experts who warn of an emerging phenomenon of ”toxic stress” in young people who have experienced prolonged trauma.
The results can be catastrophic. As cell growth is impaired and the formation of healthy neural circuits is disrupted, the child struggles to regulate emotions.
Changes in the hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for memory and emotional control – cause shrinkage, which in turn can trigger learning and behavioural problems, difficulty with impulse control and a heightened sense of rage and self-loathing.
* Names have been changed
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