This article was written by Issra Killawi, BA with help from Salma Elkadi Abugideiri, LPC, Aisha Ishtiaq, LMFT, and Maryum Khwaja, LCSW. It was reviewed by Madiha Tahseen, PhD. This article contains content that may be triggering for victims and survivors of domestic violence.

5 Things Muslim Therapists Wish You Knew About Children and Domestic Abuse

“If they aren’t getting physically hurt, your kids will be fine. Children forget these things easily. It’s you and your husband who are having problems, and you’ll work it out. You need to be patient, for the sake of the children.”  – Advice given to a survivor of domestic abuse
Immediately after confiding in her friend about the abuse, Aziza felt a deep stab of regret and betrayal. Perhaps without meaning to, her friend dismissed the pain, fear, and vulnerability that Aziza was feeling. Instead, her response was concerned with the well-being of Aziza’s children, Sami and Maria. If only she knew that the kids are really struggling too, Aziza thought to herself. Sami had nightmares ever since the violence began. Maria was acting up in class and spending hours alone in her room to avoid it all. 
When we hear about domestic abuse happening to someone we know, many of us panic. We may not know how to give advice. We may even say well-meaning things like Aziza’s friend: “Just be patient – for the sake of the children.” Unfortunately, patience alone doesn’t change the fact that children who witness abuse are deeply impacted by it, often into adulthood. Many children do recall the abuse they witnessed–they may seem to be resilient but not all trauma is manifested immediately. This trauma can have long-lasting effects on their social and emotional well-being. 

Aisha Ishtiaq, a marriage and family therapist who works with many Muslims clients says that about half of her clients deal with some issue related to domestic abuse they experienced when they were younger. “Whether they watched it play out or experienced it themselves, they are now working through the aftermath of the experience.” The impact of domestic abuse is deep and layered, and it touches each member of a household differently. “Within one family, each child may respond very differently since each person’s response to trauma is different,” says Salma Abugideiri, licensed professional counselor and Founding Board Member of the
Peaceful Families Project.

Here are 5 things Muslim therapists want you to know about how domestic abuse impacts children in their youth and into adulthood:

1) Low Self Esteem

Children who have witnessed or experienced abuse often carry negative beliefs about themselves. “It is common for children from abused homes to struggle with self-worth and have negative beliefs about themselves, like ‘I’m not good enough,’ or ‘It’s my fault.’ These two themes are very common in my clients,” says Abugideiri. “Although I currently only work with adults, that childhood narrative stays with them and impacts many areas of life like work, marriage, friendships, and even spirituality.” 

For some, these negative beliefs can stem from failed attempts to stop the abuse at home. “I have images (from stories told to me by my adult clients) of a 3-year-old girl jumping on her father’s back whenever he was hitting her mother. She remembers hitting him and trying to bite him but getting flung off as he continued with hitting her mother. And there are several teenage boys who physically fought their fathers to deter them from hitting their mothers. These boys often ended up in juvenile detention,” says Abugideiri.
“Because these children take on a responsibility that is not theirs, and is too big for them, they often feel like failures or feel helpless.”

2) Learned Helplessness

An abuser may not physically abuse their victims but he/she can exert power and control over the household through spiritual, sexual, financial, or emotional abuse. One common way that an abusive parent may manipulate children in the household is to perpetuate the idea that the child is incapable of making their own decisions. “By talking down to them, not allowing them to make their own choices, and preventing them from having any personal boundaries, the child internalizes the idea that they are powerless and incapable – because their parent said so,” says Ishtiaq. Based on years of hearing this, they then stop taking initiative, give up easily, and have no motivation to succeed. This is called learned helplessness. 

What does learned helplessness look like in adulthood? “From what I’ve seen with my clients, they are always questioning themselves. There’s this feeling of not trusting oneself. The abusive parent may say things like, ‘You don’t know what you are doing. You don’t know what’s good for you. That’s why I have to make decisions on your behalf.’ And so, as an adult, you don’t trust your ability to make decisions, to live on your own, or know what to do.” As these children grow into adults, it becomes difficult for them to separate from the controlling parent or to develop a sense of independence.
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3) Inability To Trust Others Or Open Up

If you grew up around healthy relationships, you’ve learned that trust is built over time through consistent, positive interactions. But it’s difficult for trust to grow in a home where manipulation, shame or violence are a constant. Maryum Khwaja, a licensed social worker, explains that abusers plant seeds of distrust in a victim’s relationships to isolate them and gain more power. “They may say things like, ‘No one cares about you. Only I care about you.’”   

This can make it difficult for someone who grew up in an abusive environment to trust others, a common theme for many of Abugideiri’s clients. “They may be the one that takes on their friend’s problems but doesn’t share [their own] or being told by others that they are closed off or have too many walls. Even in therapy, sometimes it takes a while before people are able to open up fully because of fears related to abandonment/rejection or being shamed or judged.”   

Ishtiaq says she’s seen both sides of the coin: clients who either don’t trust people at all, or those who trust people too much. “Of course I trust you. Let me go out of my way to show you that I trust you. A person like this may not know how to pace the relationship by giving it time or setting healthy boundaries with others.

4) Relationship With Parents

Witnessing or experiencing abuse at home impact the parent-child relationship, too. “Sometimes children grow up to feel allied with the parent who was the victim of abuse. Other times children grow up with a lot of anger towards the abused parent for staying in a violent relationship, viewing that parent as weak, and unable to protect themselves and the children,” says Abugideiri. In some cases, the abusive parent might also be manipulative and shower children with gifts or privileges as a way of buying their loyalty. This is another way to further isolate the victim, says Khwaja. 

Children may also take on the behaviors of either parent, behaving like either the victim or the perpetrator. “As children, they might begin to bully in school or make hurtful comments towards other people. As they get older, they may become more volatile,” Ishtiaq says.
In most cases, says Abugideiri, children grow up feeling some sort of loyalty, conflict and guilt, especially if they grew up hearing how well Muslims must treat their parents regardless of what kind of parent they had.

5) Continuing the Cycle in Adult Relationships

Often, this behavior shows up in adult relationships too. What children see at home shapes their sense of normalcy. It impacts the quality of relationships they have as adults. Ishtiaq says that one of her clients didn’t realize that her family was abusive until she moved out for college and saw how other “normal” families interacted with each other. Khwaja agrees, saying that this is very common in early adulthood and can cause a slew of mental health issues.   

“This is really the arena in which everything comes to a head,” says Abugideiri. “Many people who come in for marriage counseling are actually struggling because of what they learned about themselves, gender roles, relationships, and conflict resolution. “For many people who’ve grown up in violent households, they learn to either be a victim or a victimizer. I’ve worked with many young people who come in for counseling before marriage or as newlyweds, determined not to replicate their parents’ marriage, only to catch themselves over-reacting to their partner as they may be hypervigilant for anything that might feel like an attack. Their hypervigilance and defensiveness impacts the partner and creates a negative pattern, even if there is no active violence.”
One of Khwaja’s clients struggles with a similar pattern in her marriage. “My client’s father was extremely physically abusive to her mother, brother and her. He had his own history of abuse,” says Khwaja. “She is now married, and when triggered or upset, she will dissociate, fly into a rage and will break things. She doesn’t know how to use her words to express her feelings or draw boundaries. Her husband does not understand her needs and inadvertently will trigger her.”

“Some women who witness their mothers being abused continue the cycle; others actively seek to break it,” says Abugideiri. “The same is true for men. Sometimes people overcompensate, like some men who become paralyzed out of intense fear that they may make their wife feel disrespected or controlled, so they avoid asserting themselves at all. Others resort to the same strategies they witnessed growing up when they don’t get their way.”

A Final Note To Our Communities

The key thing that therapists want you to know is this: Even if the abuse isn’t physical, or is directed towards someone else in the home, that child is still experiencing trauma – whether it’s apparent or not. “What’s best for the children is where there is peace. Finding that peace is not so simple in these kinds of situations. But when parents choose to stay in unhealthy relationships, they are communicating to their children that the preservation of the relationship at all costs is the most important thing,” says Khwaja. “The more our communities attach shame to this, the more difficult we make it for people to leave unsafe, unhealthy situations.”   

The reality is that what happens in one household will likely impact the wellness of several generations to come – unless things change. Ishtiaq emphasizes the idea that domestic abuse does not remain “domestic.” That person who witnessed the abuse as a child now plays the role of either the victim or the abuser, unless they choose to interrupt the cycle. Abugideiri adds that violence in the home affects all levels of society, citing research about the impact of abuse on health, work performance, and increased risk for substance abuse and crime. For anyone who grew up in a hostile home, Khwaja strongly recommends therapy to understand the internalized messages of the abuse.
Share this article with family and friends to get the conversation going. Check out PFP’s Domestic Violence Toolkit for more guidance and resources about domestic violence and hotlines/organizations that can help. To support more research about domestic abuse within American Muslims communities, take this survey!
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