Ending gender-based violence starts with babies, toddlers and children
Ending gender-based violence starts with babies, toddlers and children
At Tweddle, supporting babies and toddlers to get the best start in life is our priority. Feeling loved and safe at home is the foundation for a child’s life-long mental health and well-being. Unfortunately, not all infants and children grow up feeling safe.
The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence international campaign kicks off on the 25th of November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs until 10 December, Human Rights Day. Research shows that gender-based violence at home causes significant harm to babies and toddlers. The good news is we have a chance to change that.
Working to achieve gender equality is key to ending violence against women. The strongest predictor of high levels of violence against women is unequal power between men and women. When we address gender inequity to prevent violence against women and improve women’s equal participation, we improve outcomes for infants, children and the entire community.
Stop it at the start
16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is a time when we can think about stopping gender-based violence at the start which is in infancy and childhood. It starts with raising babies and children to know that they are equal, and to raise them surrounded by messages, actions and behaviours that reinforce this important message every day.
As parents and carers of babies, toddlers and children, we want them to have positive experiences, healthy relationships and opportunities to learn. We want them to understand right and wrong. We want them to respect others, and respect themselves.
We do our best to set a good example, but sometimes, without meaning to, we might say things that excuse disrespectful behaviour in young people. It’s important we understand the cycle of violence. Not all disrespect towards women results in violence. But all violence against women starts with disrespectful behaviour.
How violence against women harms children
Studies show that living with domestic violence can cause physical and emotional harm to children and young people in the following ways:
- ongoing anxiety and depression
- emotional distress
- eating and sleeping disturbances
- physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomach aches
- find it hard to manage stress
- low self-esteem
- be aggressive towards friends and school mates
- feel guilt or blame themselves for the violence
- have trouble forming positive relationships
- develop phobias and insomnia
- struggle with going to school and doing schoolwork
- use bullying behaviour or become a target of bullying
- difficulty concentrating
- find it hard to solve problems
- have less empathy and caring for others
Babies, toddlers, and young people exposed to domestic and family violence are more likely to:
- suffer from depression
- be homeless
- abuse drugs and alcohol
- engage in risk-taking behaviours
- experience or use violence and be controlling and manipulative in relationships
- Physical safety
- Sometimes being exposed to domestic and family violence isn’t just a matter of witnessing it. Children and young people are often physically hurt during violent episodes, either accidentally or deliberately.
- Children and young people need to grow up in a secure and nurturing environment. Where domestic or family violence exists, the home is not safe or secure and children are scared about what might happen to them and the people they love.
- Effects of violence on children by age
- In utero – An unborn child may be injured in the womb due to violence aimed at the mother’s abdomen or suffer from exposure to drugs or alcohol that a mother may use to cope with stress.
- Babies – An infant exposed to violence may have difficulty developing attachments with their caregivers and in extreme cases suffer from failure to thrive.
- Toddler – A preschooler’s development may be affected, and they can suffer from eating and sleep disturbances.
- Child – A school-aged child may struggle with peer relationships, academic performance, and emotional stability.
- Teenager – An adolescent may be at higher risk of substance misuse or of either perpetrating or becoming a victim of dating violence.
How does family violence impact a baby/child’s brain development?
At birth, a baby’s brain is 25% of its adult weight, increasing to 66% by the end of the first year due to the ‘brain growth spurt’ which occurs between the seventh prenatal month and the child’s first birthday. The developing brain is most vulnerable to the impact of traumatic experiences during this time. New research on brain development suggests that exposure to extreme trauma will change the organisation of the brain, resulting in difficulties in dealing with stresses later in life (Perry, 1997).
Raised levels of the steroid hormone cortisol are a normal response to stress in humans. Frequent and prolonged exposure to elevated cortisol levels may affect the development of a major stress-regulating system in the brain (Cynader and Frost, 1999) either heightening the stress feedback system (leading to hypervigiliance, chronic fear and anxiety, negative mood and problems in attending) or reducing it, leading to depression (De Bellis et al, 1994; Hart et al 1995, 1996; Putnam and Trickett, 1997, all cited in Margolin and Gordis, 2000).
Chronic stress can cause depression of the immune function as well as
other body systems controlled by the brain (Coe, 1999). It is not surprising, then, that observed changes in infant behaviour include irritability, sleep disturbances, more extreme ‘startle’ responses and more minor illnesses (Osofsky & Scheeringa 1997, Zeanah & Scheeringa, 1997, cited in Margolin & Gordis, 2000).
New research on brain development suggests that exposure to extreme trauma will change the organisation of the brain, resulting in difficulties in dealing with stresses
later in life (Perry, 1997).
Research on attachment in infancy has shown that the more serious the level of partner violence, the higher the likelihood of insecure, specifically disorganised, attachments. It seems that frightening or frightened behaviour of the caregiver might promote disorganised attachment. While over 70% of infants in ‘average’ households are generally classified as ‘securely attached’ over 50% of babies in a sample of mothers who had been the target of domestic violence were classified as having ‘disorganised attachment’.
Research on the link between cortisol levels and attachment status shows a contrast
between securely and insecurely attached infants. Raised levels of the steroid hormone cortisol are a normal response to stress in humans. Responsive alleviation by caregivers of infants’ distress leads to a ‘buffering’ of the neuroendocrine system (HPA) involved in cortisol production. Secure babies are therefore less affected by stress.
Insecure infants have elevated cortisol levels even after mild stressors (Gunnar & Barr, 1998). It is as if these babies have been ‘primed to be reactive’, what has been described as hypervigilant, that is always on the outlook for danger. As they grow up, this may be protective for children living with violence, but if it means they are hyper-reactive, oversensitive to the possibility of danger at school, this might make them inclined to be aggressive in readiness to defend themselves and therefore unpopular with classmates.
There is much research showing the importance of responsive and sensitive mothering in the healthy development of children. Some mothers heroically are able to remain sensitive and responsive to their children’s signals despite their own suffering. But others in this situation may be overwhelmed and so full of anxiety that they are not emotionally available to their children. Thus babies are more likely to be deprived of quality parenting where domestic violence is present, with its associated high levels of stress.
Opportunities for parents and carers to change how children view gender equality
According to experts, small actions such as exposing children to non-stereotypical characters found in books and movies, or dividing housework equally at home, can redefine behaviour patterns for this and the next generation, and broaden women’s access to resources and opportunities.
The early years are a critical time when gender roles and stereotypical notions of what it means to be masculine or feminine are shaped, and when positive influences on children’s and families’ understanding of gender norms can most easily be achieved (Rainbow Families Council, 2012; OurWatch 2015).
Violence against women is gendered in nature. Particular expressions of gender inequality consistently predict higher rates of violence against women, these include the condoning of violence against women, men’s control of decision-making and limits to women’s independence in public and private life, rigid gender roles and stereotyped constructions of masculinity and femininity, and male peer relations that emphasise aggression and disrespect towards women (OurWatch, 2015).
Encouraging gender positive activities for babies, toddlers and children
All children, regardless of biological sex, have the right to reach their full potential by learning any subject, practicing any type of sport and playing with any toy.
Experts say that curtailing activities according to biological sex may stunt a child’s development, as toys traditionally targeting boys tend to develop more spatial skills, while toys marked as “feminine” stimulate more sociability and caring. When limited to the type of play expected for their gender, children fail to develop certain skills.
We can help promote gender equality in our daily actions and habits, e.g. let your children play with whatever toys they like regardless of their sex. All play helps children to develop life skills.
Role Modelling Gender Equity so children thrive
Try to be a role model to your child. Show examples of gender equality in the home. If you have a partner, try to share jobs out equally. Everyone can help with things like cooking, cleaning, gardening, or washing the car.
Challenge stereotypes. For example, girls and women are often represented by sexist and racial stereotypes. Look at powerful and inspirational people of all genders and ethnic identities from history. Celebrate them for their strengths. Teach your child to be proud of who they are.
Look at diversity in the world. Explore different cultures with your child using books, films, and music.
Remember that all human beings have feelings and need to express these feelings. It’s OK to show emotions, whatever your sex or gender identity.
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