Author: Dr Hazel Whitters
Dr Hazel Whitters is a Senior Early Years’ Worker and Child Protection Officer in an early years’ service in Glasgow, Scotland. She has conducted research on the therapeutic relationship in a context of intervention and child protection. Hazel has recently had three books published by Routledge on child protection, family learning/inclusion, and attainment/executive functioning in the earliest years.
Domestic Violence and Toxic Stress
The sky was low and dark, and the atmosphere foreboding as large raindrops drummed steadily against the window panes. A storm was brewing inside too. Four-year-old Rory was tense as he stood at the door of his nursery playroom. He balled his fist…and punched. Within seconds I crouched down by his side. I enveloped his fist in my hand – Rory was trembling, his muscles taut and ready. I put my arm around Rory’s waist to guide him gently away from the scene. Rory’s heart was beating rapidly, too fast for a little child at play. Beaded sweat dampened his curly hair. This is toxic stress.
Stress and mental health have become common topics for discussion in the early years (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2017). Practitioners learn of links between unusual patterns of cortisol secretion, trauma, and reactions by children, which are often described as fight, flight or freeze.
Toxic stress is prolonged activation of the body’s stress responses in preparation for a threat to survival: increased heart-rate, higher blood pressure, tightening of muscles, adrenalin, priming the child to take action. The long-term effect upon the individual and society is clearly shared in many current and prior publications on adverse childhood experiences (eg Felitti et al., 1998; Smith, 2018).
Domestic violence has been elevated to the forefront of childhood adversities as a source of toxic stress (Bellazaire, 2018). The example set by a violent relationship between primary carers, regardless of gender, presents a blue-print of chaotic attachment to children. Their main learning arena is the home environment, which is hidden from the world. In such an environment the learning outcomes are control, dependency, power, fear, subservience, and suffering. There is a dearth of those attributes which are necessary for children’s attainment, and to build peace in our society: a nurturing attitude, empathy, and love.
Domestic violence can be restrained and potentially halted by law, albeit for a short period, but its effects on those involved are invasive. Internal trauma is long-lasting and may pervade daily existence throughout the lifespan. The operational skills of a perpetrator are easily emulated within a family, and this inter-generational impact can be perpetuated by teenagers. After his violent father is removed from the home, Rory’s role-model is his fourteen year old brother, Alfie, whose knowledge and understanding of life was gained in volatile circumstances.
Rory is learning, and developing through intervention by services during his earliest years. Over time Rory will gain resilience, self-regulate his behaviour, understand his emotions, and achieve in a context of secure attachment. But what about our teenage instigators of domestic violence? Adolescents, often boys, reproducing the parental violence they have witnessed, because that is all they know. What about Alfie?
Family learning (see definition) is the route to changing this pattern – interventions which encompass different generations, capitalise on the strengths of communities, and build on the inherent resilience of extended family units.
Bellazaire, A. (2018). Preventing and mitigating the effects of adverse childhood experiences.
National conference of state legislatures, 2018. Retrieved on 1 January, 2019, from
Felitti, V.J., Anda, R.F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D.F., Spitz, A.M., Edwards, V., Koss,
M.P., & Marks, J, S. (1998). Relationships of childhood abuse and household
dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. American journal of
preventive medicine, volume 14, issue 4. Retrieved on 25 December, 2017, from
National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2017). Toxic stress. The inbrief
series. Retrieved on 21 June, 2018, from
Smith, L. (2018). Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs): Educational Interventions.
Glasgow: The Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services (Iriss).