Child Witness Thoughts on Sharing Experiences of Violence as an Adult

Being a child witness of violence can change how you talk about your experiences of violence.

CONTENT WARNING: Contains reference to childhood trauma, abuse, and violence against women.

NOTE FROM NICOLE: For the past six months, we have been working with Trent University student researcher, Natasha Randell-Tremblett. She has been conducting research on effective communications strategies for anti-violence organizations, which we look forward to sharing with our followers when ready. As part of one of her courses, Natasha prepared some reflections on content they are studying. Below, we share one of Natasha’s reflections, which relates to her experiences as a childhood witness of abuse. As this blog post contains references to violence against women and childhood trauma, please continue with care.

Reading The Diversity of Children’s Immediate Coping Responses to Witnessing Domestic Violence by Allen, Nicole e., et al. was an interesting experience for me as a former child witness to violence. As I read through the different methods therapists and social workers use to help children who have experienced violence or witnessed violence open up, I was surprised by how many I recognized as being used on myself in therapy as a child. It was surreal to read the breakdown of why each method is used and how it allows the child to tell their story of their experiences. One of the most profound things I learned from this paper was how children cope with stressors such as violent acts, and how the environments they are in can affect how they tell their story. This really resonated with me because when I listen to my brother talk about moments in our childhood vs how I talk about these same moments, I am surprised by how vastly different they are. I firmly believe that as children, we learn how to cope with situations at a young age and that these coping mechanisms travel into how we manage things as adults. This paper only further adds to my belief of such.

When I listen to adult women talk about violent experiences, they share these experiences differently based on whether or not they have experienced violence (or the expectation of violence) in childhood. For women who have experienced childhood violence, I can hear it in the tone of voice they use, their wording, and even their body language, which conveys that this violence is normalized or expected in some form. Because they have been conditioned from a young age to accept the simple fact that violence is a part of their normal, they often do not act the way the lister expects them to. This can make the listener feel as if the violence faced is not as bad as described. Comparatively, women who have never experienced such conditions or expectations of violence, share their experiences in a way that more often adheres to society’s stereotypical understandings of violence: their voices, emotions, and body language show extreme emotions, emphasizing how horrific the violence has been. 

I wonder how many of the people who listen to the stories of women and children who face violence pay attention to how much the environment impacts how these women tell their story and how they act. Do they notice if the storytellers change the way they word things, if they leave parts out? How the body language of the listener really shapes how the storyteller shares their experience? Looking back, I know I stopped sharing with others the negative experiences I had had with police because I was told one too many times by people, oh, but the police would never do that; they have training. Or even worse, how many times I stopped sharing an experience because I felt as though the trained person who was there to listen could not handle my experiences. I felt the need to protect them from the full details of my childhood experiences.

How do we as a society expect women and children to share their experiences when we judge them for how they choose to share? Diminish their experiences? Or worse yet, make them feel like they have to protect those who should protect and help them. Perhaps its time we ask ourselves why we as a society are forcing those who witness or experience violence to protect us instead of protecting them.

by Natasha Randell-Tremblett
Undergraduate Student
Indigenous Studies and Women & Gender Studies
Trent University