COE 1999 : SEMINAR Men and Violence

Growing up in the proximity of violence

Teenagers’ Stories of Violence in the Home 

EuroPROFEM - The European Men Profeminist Network 


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66n-en_vio ... Violence


European Council of Europen - Human Rights

Section Equality between women and men

Seminar : Men and Violence Against Women

Strasbourg, 8 October 1999 - Palais de l'Europe - France


Growing up in the proximity of violence

Teenagers’ Stories of Violence in the Home  


Dr Katarina Weinehall, University of Umeå (Sweden)


This study brings into focus the experiences of teenagers (13-19 years) subjected to violence in the home. The purpose of my study was to gain knowledge regarding the conditions related to socialisation in the proximity of violence through listening to, interpreting and attempting to understand the teenagers’ narratives about life when violence is an everyday occurrence.  


Primarily, I wanted to obtain a picture of the conditions under which these girls and boys grew up as they themselves described them. My questions are primarily concerned with the teenagers’ experiences of violence in the home, the strategies they used to cope with a violent home environment and finally with their self-images. Secondarily, my intention was to analyse and interpret the picture that emerged in an attempt to understand the meaning of socialisation in the proximity of violence, primarily based upon theories of sexualised violence (aspects of power and gender), coping, resilience, and the social heritage of violence-related behaviour (the inter-generational transmission of violent behaviour). My purpose was also to relate the descriptions and analysis of domestic violence, and the associated conditions under which these young people grew up, to previous research within the field of family violence.  


The research is grounded in feminist theory which views the gender and power relationships between women and men as a determining principle of social organisation. Men as a group dominate and actively oppress women as a group. The negative effects of the unequal allocation of power between the sexes at the societal level correspond to male dominance and wife battering at the individual level.


I associate this with the established Scandinavian concept of ”sexualised violence," used to describe forms of abuse and sexual exploitation such as rape, incest and other sexual assaults, pornography, the sex trade and sexual harassment.  

By concentrating upon in-depth studies of a few individuals, I wanted to capture both the universal and the unique by working inductively and empathetically. A narrative approach was chosen in order to allow interaction and to ease the process of disclosure for the informants. The premise was that each of the young people would relate his or her own truth, i.e. describe a picture of life as he or she has lived it.


Establishing contact with the teenagers was an arduous and extremely time-consuming process of several steps. After an introductory, unsuccessful poster campaign, the procedural method followed a funnel-shaped model: at first wide and open as meetings were held with approximately 3,800 teenagers and 700 adults in conjunction with lectures and visits to schools, recreation centres, sports associations and similar in a large number of communities. I spoke with approximately 450 young people during the first years, most of them girls. During the first four years when the project telephone line was open, I spoke with 178 teenagers more than twice each and met 59 of them personally. Fifteen of these became the study’s informants (ten girls and five boys). They were interviewed from six to ten times each over four years. The interviews were conducted in the greatest possible secrecy and far-reaching security measures were applied.


The interviews progressed in steps from background information to the most private and sensitive questions about the violence which had taken place in the home. The number of interviews was determined case by case; the interviews were concluded when no or few new aspects emerged. The processing of the texts led to the construction of six overweening themes, each with a number of subcategories: daily life in the family, relationships, everyday coping strategies, the processing of feelings, violence as a condition and self-image.


The informants and the families


Ten of the young people included in the study are girls and five are boys. All of them were 15 or 16 years old when the interviews began and 18 or 19 at their conclusion. The conditions under which they grew up include both similarities and wide dissimilarities. Barely half of the young people grew up in a nuclear family with their biological parents. Ten of them lived with their biological mothers up to their teen years. Sometimes the biological father also lived with them, at times another man and not the same man every year. Three of the teenagers have no siblings, two have one sibling each and ten have more than one sibling. In the ten families with more than two children, seven of the informants are the eldest or second eldest child in the family. Most of the informants are accustomed to regular disruptions caused by separations and household moves. Only two of the teenagers spent all of their primary school years within the same school district. According to the teenagers themselves, only two of the families are affluent. Six families belong to a median category. The financial circumstances of seven of the families are such that they often require public assistance.


Large quantities of alcohol have been part of the equation in eleven of the fifteen families. In seven of the families, only the man has abused alcohol/drugs. In four of the families, the woman has also abused alcohol/drugs, but in no case was the woman the only adult substance abuser in the family.


All of the informants witnessed violence in the family. Thirteen of them have also been subjected to physical violence and are thus both witnesses and victims. In fourteen cases, the primary perpetrator of violence in the family is the biological father. In half of the families, another man associated with the family has also perpetrated violence. In eight cases the biological father alone was the perpetrator. In four cases the father and stepfather or other men perpetrated violence. In three families, the woman was also violent.


Five of the girls, but none of the boys, were victims of sexual assault. In eight of the families, the mothers have been sexually assaulted; in two of these families, the girl was also sexually assaulted. The girl and the boy who were not personally subjected to physical violence are part of the group of four teenagers from families in which sexual assault has not occurred to their knowledge.


The proximity of violence and intimate relationships


There are many areas of commonality within the teenagers’ stories about daily family life. These included their descriptions of what they believed to be normal family life while they were growing up. For them, this was a family with a drunken and belligerent father who battered the mother and sometimes the children as well. They describe a home environment lacking in structure and fixed points of reference such as established mealtimes, bedtimes, etc. Nearly all of the teenagers have often had to change their living environments. In those cases where the biological father was no longer a part of the family, other males have been associated with the family for shorter or longer periods.

The family rules were dictated by the father and were difficult to abide by as many of them were unexpressed and often changed at random. The environment was experienced as wholly unpredictable. For example, they never knew when or why a violent situation would arise. A constant state of preparedness prevailed within the family prior to the violent incident and nearly total silence reigned afterward. The family members adjusted their behaviour according to the man’s rules in order to avoid further violence, if possible.


The teenagers experienced violence in highly divergent ways. Most of them consider the psychological violence to be the absolute worst. The combination of psychological and physical violence is the most difficult, particularly for the five girls who have been victims of sexual assault by their fathers and/or their mothers’ cohabitants. The boys have been spared sexual assault but were often forced to listen as their fathers raped their mothers without being able to intervene in her defence.


When the teenagers describe their own feelings and their relationships to their parents, they relate both positive and negative judgments, more positive towards their mothers than their fathers. All of the girls use the expressions care for or love to describe their feelings towards their mothers. "Mom has let me down, but she is my mother and she has protected me, I love her," say most of the girls. The girls say that their relationships with their fathers shut down when he was violent. When not violent, he was a normal dad with both good and bad sides. None of the boys use the expressions care for or love about their fathers. They all speak negatively of their fathers, though a couple of them report feeling a certain sympathy. All of the boys except for one express positive feelings for their mothers.


All of the young people are very negative towards the authority figures (social workers, school psychologists, counsellors, child psychologists, etc.) with whom they have come into contact. Their prejudice against professionals they deem inadequate is unmitigated. The youths are most negative towards public officials from the social services department ("pimples on the ass" who "deserve to have a price on their heads"), followed by personnel from Children’s and Youth Psychiatric Services. The police are accorded predominantly positive judgments. Most of the teenagers feel that one should not confide in teachers and some of them have negative experiences of having done so.    

For many of the girls, their relationships with boyfriends are so important that their self-esteem is jeopardised. Half of them have been subjected to physical violence by their boyfriends, in several cases the violence was life-threatening. The boys also talk about "a good relationship." The boys say that they don’t want their relationships to their girlfriends to be as stormy as those of their parents, nor for the relationships to include as much drinking. This notwithstanding, the boys have on occasion been drunk and have hit their girlfriends.  


Coping with events and emotions


The young people cope with these violent events by using different strategies at different ages. When they were younger, passive strategies were frequently necessary as the children were too weak to act and intervene in violent events. The older youths have had access to a wider range of coping strategies and possible actions. They have been able to act either by keeping away from home or by staying home to monitor events. They have also been able to choose to run away from the entire situation. Making their choices in each situation has brought about great inner turmoil.


When the teenagers made no concrete intervention into a violent situation, they were still able to cope with their situations, though in a less conspicuous manner. For example, they chose to keep their thoughts to themselves rather than to talk about what was going on. They tried to forgive their fathers for their violent actions or to keep their feelings in check by refusing to reveal them. All of these teenagers try to create their own realities through poetry, song, music, dance, theatre, painting or sculpture. Remaining silent, keeping a tight rein over their emotions and the situation while simultaneously seeking out alternative forms of expression from their locked positions were action strategies employed by all of them. Denying reality by fantasising about it, dreaming up a new reality or lying about the situation were strategies used rather frequently by most of the teenagers. However, directly harmful strategies such as intoxicating themselves with alcohol and drugs or attempting suicide have also been practised.


The youths express a broad register of emotions. Fear is common to all. All are and have been afraid of their fathers, not always because of what they might do to them personally, but rather for what they might do to their mothers and siblings. All of the young people say that they are burdened with feelings of shame, guilt, betrayal and distrust. All of them express deep and intense feelings of loneliness and of being left out. Nearly all of them have been victims of bullying.


Feelings of powerlessness, anxiety, worry, responsibility and fatigue become more apparent when the youths place themselves in relation to the violence. The girls usually feel more threatened than do the boys. All of the young people say that they have not been able to rely upon any other human being and that they did not feel they had any influence over the violence in their homes, which intensified their feelings of vulnerability.


Most of the teenagers hate their fathers. This hatred is often associated with a wish for, and plans for, revenge. Two thirds of the teenagers (ten individuals) have upon occasion nourished a wish that their fathers would die or have felt that they wanted to kill their fathers.


Longing, wishes, hope and love are usually directed away from the time and place in which the youths find themselves and towards another time, anywhere else but here.


I was shaped by the violence in my home


An assertion common to all of the young people’s narratives is that physical violence hurts but psychological violence is worse. They are agreed on that violence should not be part of a relationship but equally agreed on that it is difficult to avoid.

According to the teenagers, the causes of violence are to be found in alcohol and drugs. In addition, there is something "sick" about their fathers, there is something wrong with them mentally. The young people, who themselves were often beaten but never understood why, believe that their fathers’ violent behaviour may be ingrained in their personalities, that they may be burdened by their own difficult childhood experiences. The memories insist upon admittance; what happened cannot be explained and excused, it has left its mark, they say. "Perhaps the meaning of it all is that we are supposed to learn from the hard things, but my father’s violence has made me think badly of myself and be suspicious of other people. The violence and the fear has made me to provoke violence," say some of the girls.


All but one girl are convinced that their fathers are capable of killing them and the rest of the family. All have experienced threats as concrete and practicable. Thirteen of the fifteen youths believe that they are alive today because their mothers were able to protect them from the violence of their fathers/other men. Eleven of the fifteen state that they will not be able to feel good as long as their fathers are alive.


A good relationship with a partner is a means of acquiring security and is something the girls strive for but have not achieved. Several of them have been physically abused and have lost their self-esteem in their relationships with boyfriends. All five boys have on some occasion perpetrated violence upon their girlfriends, but resist seeing themselves as batterers.


Growing up in the proximity of violence


The abuse of alcohol has had a negative effect on familial interaction. Violence is also more brutal in those families where the man is gravely addicted and in families where both adults are substance abusers.


The fathers have dictated over the families by isolating them. They have shown contempt and derision, have humiliated their families, withdrawn evidence of love and perpetrated violence upon them to the point of torture. The children have not been given the opportunity to react. Silence has been demanded from the other family members. The teenagers in this study have been strongly affected by having been taught as children to keep silent. Their fathers’ control and exercise of power has been so strong that in the end, they did not necessarily have to perpetrate physical violence to enforce their wills. For the young people, particularly the girls, psychological violence was often enough. A constantly present threat has made the young people vigilant and suspicious. The total dominance by their fathers has taken from these young people the possibility of forming good and trustful relationships. They have been unable to make peer contact and develop peer relationships, which has had a negative impact on the development of their social skills.  


The conditions under which they grew up have given this study’s informants frames of reference that differ from those of their peers. The distrust of the world around them created by their childhood has functioned as a protective device to shield them from further harm and betrayal. The girls in particular have become masters at "reading people and situations." The teenagers occupy a place apart among their peers, they are regarded as deviant and are teased, beaten and bullied. The pattern has recurred even when they have moved and changed schools. It is clear that these children are doubly victimised. The violence perpetrated by the father in the home is mirrored at school. The teenagers do not seem to have strategies for coping with this further victimisation. The "inherited vulnerability" has left them with fewer resources for avoiding violence and victimisation in situations outside of the home.  

A change occurs during the course of the study. The teenagers perception of the violence that occurred during their childhood has clearly changed; today, the teenagers have a different concept of what it means to live a "normal life."


The boys do not want to become like their fathers and the girls are determined not to accept situations like those of their mothers. Despite these statements, the boys have on occasion hit their girlfriends and believed that the girls deserved to be hit and the girls have remained with their boyfriends even after having been humiliated and abused by them. This indicates that the reproduction of violence has functioned largely according to the theory of transmission. The boys explain their use of violence by saying that the girls goaded them into it, which excepts them from responsibility. The girls who have been battered by their boyfriends most often find an explanation that relieves their boyfriends from guilt in their eyes, such as alcohol or drugs. The girls blame themselves.


A socially inherited tendency towards violence could be intimated with regard to the boys while the girls are found once again in the position of victim. The teenagers do not want to assume the patterns of their parents, yet their social heritage still seems to catch up with them. It is difficult for them to shake off and be rid of the childhood experiences which have been carved into them. They cannot identify the core, they do not know why the violence has occurred, therefore, they also do not know what they should be running from or casting away.


If there is no support to be found in their surroundings, whether at home, school or within the community, the support must be created within the teenager himself or herself and this is precisely what has occurred. The teenagers have made changes within the given frames of reference, they have developed "help towards self-help." They have been able to bypass the demand for silence without betraying the family. They have shaped their thoughts into words through poems, diaries, fables, short stories, plays, lyrics and all else they could devise. They no longer allow the culture of silence to fully dominate them. They have spoken out through the written word, the directed word from a stage or through music.


Surviving the proximity of violence


It takes both strength and courage to survive difficult childhood conditions as these informants are doing. The teenagers strive to make the invalid valid by writing about it, studying facts about violence and substance abuse and attempting to retain their reason. "He cannot get into my mind. He can’t control my thoughts!" They try to make the invisible visible by running away, going to the police and asking for help, starving themselves or bingeing, attempting suicide and, by various means, attracting attention that will lead to change. "I thought about doing the usual, running away from home and being searched for by the police and all that…but I just couldn’t handle it one more time. I could go to the police myself, after all." They try to make the evil disappear; they pray, they forgive and they attempt to create a state of peace and quiet in the home through denial. "I start drinking. Right away." Nevertheless, the teenagers may despite these attempts lose their fight for the right to talk about their lives and thus interpret their own reality. Once the fight seems decided so that preferential rights to interpretation seem always to fall to the father, the teenagers are prepared to give up. "I thought I had nothing left then ... so I picked up the razor blade and cut."  


The picture communicated by the teenagers is that the violence is sporadic, incalculable, constant and frightening. Sexual assault and events when the mother and siblings have hovered in mortal danger are described as the worst that could happen; the psychological violence is experienced most strongly in such situations. There have been witnesses to the event, but seldom has anyone intervened. Silence has prevailed after a violent episode. The events were significant because they have meant that the teenagers have had life experiences vastly different from those of their peers.


In the home, the outer conditions are characterised by the proximity of sexualised violence. The man’s dominance and violent actions create a threatening atmosphere and his demands for silence in solidarity are driven forward using dictatorial techniques. The family members live under constant oppression and the woman is kept in place in accordance with the relatively covert subordination. The definition with which I introduced the study, that the proximity of violence in the home consists of wife battering, no longer applies when presenting the experiences of youth. In thirteen of the fifteen families, the mother is not the only one abused. Almost all family members are victims of violence by a male perpetrator and several girls and mothers are subjected to sexual assault. The informants in this study are not only witnesses, close enough to observe the violence; they are also physically subjected to violence. The teenagers are thus much closer to the violence than "in the proximity," which is what the proximity of violence originally stood for. The teenagers in this study cannot only observe what is happening; they are pulled into what is occurring to the fullest extent. Violence surrounds them. Everyday life for these teenage children is characterised to the greatest possible extent by the presence of violence.  


The symptoms and effects visited upon the children by violence are usually not connected to the sexualised violence practised in the home. The taboo against speaking out and gaining acknowledgment of one’s own experiences impedes confirmation of the teenager’s inner and outer reality. The silence and consignment to invisibility leads to isolation and a thorough and total feeling of being powerless and alone. The inner experiences lead to individual attempts to overcome both the problems and the feelings. The children’s attempts to overcome their living conditions make it clear that the problem-focused strategies are seldom possible; all that then remains are the emotion-focused strategies in order to overcome the feeling. Having no real opportunities for action, the children perceive themselves to be powerless and these circumstances seem also to lead to an inner vulnerability that aches without cease. In order to avoid the pain of the open wound, the children find strategies to conceal their lack of a skin. The children create a protective carapace through strategies that seem to ease the pain.  


The significance of the negative effect of violence upon the teenagers’ well-being is reinforced when they are in arenas outside the home, at school and in the community in a wider sense. The presence of violence is the actual reality that is reflected in their souls and constitutes the frame of reference for possible thoughts and actions. When the children are not in the home, the demand to keep secrets rests constantly upon them. Of necessity, this leads them to keep a distance between themselves and the people they encounter outside the home. The children perceive themselves as being more mature and are perceived as different by their peers. In school, this difference may be perceived as a threat to the other children and it is possible that this is the root of the bullying these children endure. The fact that the child is subjected to insult by his or her peers and is neglected by the adults at the school reinforces feelings of alienation and contributes to his or her feelings of being unwanted and worthless. The inner experience tells them that they do not count. The inner feeling of distrust of the adult world that is created in the home is reinforced and becomes a double victimisation, due to their being let down by the adults at school as well. The fact that the adults at school discount the events is perceived more as a confirmation of the child’s meaninglessness than as a betrayal.  


With the passage of time, a situation arises that may differ according to the individual and lead to a variety of strategies and solutions. At times, the child may become exhausted due to the energy expended in maintaining the balance between the actual outer world and the invisible inner world.


In some cases, this leads the child to compromise with his or her inner world and go outside the family to seek help. The outer conditions in the societal arena then emerge in perfect clarity. The professional actors collaborate to make the problem invisible, to keep the crimes hidden and to allow the child to be forgotten. The actions of adults mean that society’s planned helping measures remain unusable. When the children encounter this complete betrayal from the adult world, hopelessness settles in and the perception of being totally abandoned invades the child.  

The escape routes that seem possible to the child are either to wait for the day that papa no longer lives, since life cannot begin until papa is dead, or to give up his or her place in life. The child’s strategies to overcome become either to quite simply try to bear the situation or to attempt to end his or her life with suicidal actions. The outer conditions limit opportunities to handle the inner reality in another way. The presence of violence is a matter of life and death.  


That which could also happen is that life takes a different turn with support found in various protecting factors within and surrounding the child. The silenced child may find strategies that allow his or her interior to be heard and seen. Through creating text, pictures, music and movements, the child processes the traumas of childhood. If the outside world confirms these creations, the child in turn is confirmed and his or her inner world is acknowledged.


If the child who breaks the taboo of silence encounters insightful listeners, the spiral of validation can begin. If the child who seeks support from another individual finds a true friend or partner, the loneliness lessens. If the child who seeks help encounters adults and professionals who dare to let go of the fear and see the child’s reality, the child is granted worth in himself or herself and in the world. His or her powers of resistance can be mobilised, inner strength confirmed and the path towards a positive self image opens.  


The teenagers become survivors who, despite their feelings of shame, guilt, betrayal and sadness, can overcome their situations using their own resources of creative powers, strength and self-worth. An intractable will can keep the spark of life burning within these teenagers. In the presence of violence, life becomes question not of living, but of surviving.


The teenagers also call themselves "survivors." Developing the courage to say no and to set boundaries based upon their own convictions are examples of powers of survival. Another is to use one’s imagination and dreams to set a goal to live up to and to hold fast to the belief that the goal will be realised. To alleviate the pain by forgiving or by giving up one’s plans to change anyone other than oneself, to put one’s energies into creative forms of expression instead of dwelling on the situation and becoming bitter are further expressions of the capacity to survive.  

The fact that the teenagers are survivors should mean that they have developed the qualities necessary for resilient function. The fantasies and hopes, and even the search for explanation and understanding, are there. That which is missing, however, are other significant positive relationships outside the family, the access to sources other than those parents have been able to offer, such as a secret ally. One aspect that differentiates survivors from other victims of violence within the family is an adult contact with good intentions. In my study, such a contact can be said to have been available to only two of the teenagers and then to a limited extent.


Another distinguishing characteristic of survivors is their greater assumption of responsibility for younger siblings and household pets. This assumption of responsibility can absolutely be said to apply to these fifteen teenagers. All demonstrate awareness of responsibility and a caring rationality. Has the teenagers’ capacity to recover blossomed by virtue of strong feelings of responsibility and caring for others? Could it be that taking responsibility for mother and siblings gives the teenagers a sense of being needed, of being meaningful? To be needed can be a reason to exist, to keep on living. It may even be the satisfaction of being needed and getting a positive response, being allowed to experience a good and positive relationship. It may also be that the teenagers, through taking responsibility for others, keep "the evil" at bay. They can become wholly caught up in caring for others and thus temporarily avoid seeing their own situations. They feel responsible for the survival of others and, consequently, survive themselves.



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