COVID-19: Domestic Violence and the Cycle of Abuse

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The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened many existing societal problems, and domestic violence is one of them. Even before COVID-19, scientists understood that heightened mental distress during and after a disaster leaves vulnerable populations such as women, children and the elderly at a higher risk of becoming victims of interpersonal violence. The pandemic has created just the right conditions for domestic violence to become more frequent and dangerous.

Children and Domestic Violence

In our pandemic-led lockdowns, children have been especially vulnerable to domestic violence. With schools shut down for months, and social isolation guidelines imposed on communities, children have been stuck at home with their families. When faced with income loss or illness struggles, the adults in children’s lives tend to be more stressed or distracted.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), increased stress in a household is a significant risk factor for the neglect and physical abuse of children. When parents feel overwhelmed, they may react abusively towards their children. Meanwhile, pandemic-related restrictions mean that children lack access to the social support they would typically have, like teachers, counselors and friends.

Women and Domestic Violence

Domestic violence between those in a romantic or physical relationship is called intimate partner violence (IPV). According to the CDC, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men have experienced some type of violence by an intimate partner. And in cases of natural disasters, violence against women and girls tends to rise.

Social isolation during a pandemic keeps vulnerable partners isolated at home with their abusers, increasing the chances of violence. For instance, New York City reported a 12% rise in domestic violence cases in 2020 compared to the same time in 2019. Stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines, though ideal for infection control, isolate vulnerable women (and men) from their sources of social support such as work, church, family or friends.

The Cycle of Violence

Victims of abuse may be caught in a “cycle of violence” consisting of three phases:

1. Tension Building Phase

The abuser causes tension in a relationship. In this phase, the victim feels that they must be vigilant and careful around the abuser, and are afraid to make them angry.

2. Violent Episode Phase

The abuser lashes out at the victim, becoming violent. The abuser might physically, sexually or mentally abuse the victim.

3. Remorseful/Honeymoon Phase

The abuser attempts to apologize and groom the victim back into a relationship. The abuser may say they will never hurt the victim again, or they may minimize the event.

Unfortunately, the abuser does not change — even if the victim remains hopeful that they will. Children, especially, want to believe the best in their parents and are very vulnerable to the cycle of abuse.

What We Can Do to Help

As a society, we can collectively take steps to keep vulnerable populations safe from domestic violence. We could keep in touch with each other and make ourselves available to friends and family who may be at risk. When possible, schools could encourage telephone check-in and teletherapy counseling.

Workers at pharmacies and grocery stores could look out for signals that an abuse victim might be seeking help. Law enforcement could ease stay-at-home orders for individuals who may be experiencing domestic violence.

Victims of domestic violence often suffer in silence, afraid to speak up. It is our responsibility, as a society, to make support available and easily accessible for their safety.

Where to Get Help

If you are a victim of domestic violence, or know someone who is, help is available at:

National Domestic Violence Hotline

Workers are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

All calls are confidential and anonymous.

Interpreter services are available in 170 languages.

1-800-799-SAFE (7233)

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