Written by Natasha Benjamin


Lessons in fear

Domestic violence starts and ends with the children, as Natasha Benjamin knows first-hand.

Photo by Bart Hickman/FreeImages.com

Photo by Bart Hickman/FreeImages.com

Domestic violence affects 1.8m children across the UK and one in three will have a mental illness as a result, something I know only too well.

I spent my most formative years, between the ages of six and 12, living on the edge, terrified, not knowing when the next violent episode would take place, not quite understanding why but hating the perpetrator (my stepfather at the time).

The hatred I had towards him was something my young mind couldn’t properly comprehend. I didn’t understand why he would just get angry over nothing or walk into the house already angry and start to beat up my mom.

Even now I can’t quite put it into words how alarming it was for me. My world, my protector, my everything in one person, suddenly beaten into a helpless pulp.

If he could do that to the only person responsible for me then there was no way that we could ever feel safe. I would often get involved in these episodes because I couldn’t bear to see him hurting my mom the way he did. Despite the fact this frightened the living daylights out of me, it also built an inner strength in me that I didn’t realise I had until many years later.

Domestic violence traumatises children; it shapes the way that they look at the world and wires their brain to expect danger all the time, which can have devastating results. I was a very fearful and anxious child and domestic violence set me up for a lot of what transpired as I grew older. Additionally, domestic violence can distract parents from noticing things about their child’s development or even more harmful situations such as bullying and sexual abuse.

I self-harmed by overeating so I was bullied at school for being overweight. At the age of 14 my mom attempted suicide and I was taken into kinship care. I was told it was my fault by a family member and these feelings of guilt and innocence really tear you apart.

Trying to make sense of these issues when you’re young leaves you feeling horribly stressed and unable to cope or articulate these feelings well. Especially when you feel you have nobody to turn to or confide in.

“I’d rather be upset than see someone else upset, even if they were the one in the wrong, something I’d learned from the domestic violence.”

After finally seeking help as an adult, I learned that I had developed post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, selective mutism, anxiety and panic attacks.

The selective mutism had begun after I spoke out about the domestic violence. Instead of getting help it backfired. I was asked by my stepfather’s father if he was hitting my mom. Being very suspicious of why I had been asked and the consequences of telling the truth, I said no. When my mom finally started to talk about everything we had been through his family called her a liar. That experience had me believe that speaking the truth caused trouble and started fights so I began to hide the truth and started living a lie myself.

As I grew into my teens and into adulthood my mental health problems and the reluctance to speak up for myself created problems in every area of my life from friendships and relationships to employment.

Thanks to my lack of self-worth, I formed unbalanced friendships by putting everyone else’s opinions and views above my own. I hid behind dominant characters. I’d rather be upset than see someone else upset, even if they were the one in the wrong, something I’d learned from the domestic violence.

In 2013 I launched Free Your Mind, which helps children recover from the trauma of domestic violence. We can keep talking about domestic violence with the focus solely on the adults but it often begins with a child who witnesses the violence in their home. We all know about Chris Brown’s very public violence towards his then-girlfriend Rihanna, but what is less known is that he was himself a child of domestic violence.

Domestic violence can affect a child typically in two ways; either they become the anxious, quiet fearful child or the angry but still fearful child who goes on to repeat the cycle they have grown up with.

Through our workshops, awareness campaigns and support services, we aim to give the children of domestic violence the tools to look after their own happiness and wellbeing and to promote the importance of having healthy relationships. It begins with them. Let’s make it end with them.

Natasha Benjamin is founder of Free Your Mind CIC.

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Written by Natasha Benjamin