‘Making Home’: Re-making the self after childhood domestic violence

In December Dr Lisa Procter was invited to write a blog post for the Journal of Advanced Nursing blogspot to mark one of the United Nation’s ’16 days of Activism’ leading up to Human Rights Day. Dr Parveen Ali coordinated 16 blog posts each written by a different academic/activist in relation to interpersonal partner violence. To view all of the posts please click here. Procter’s blog focused on childhood experiences of domestic violence and marks the beginning of her work in this area. Her blog post is below.

Childhood and adulthood have become understood as distinct stages of the lifecourse, which continue to shape idealised notions of relationships between children and adults (James 2013). Societally we hope that children are cared for and protected by adults to live happy childhoods. However, adult and children’s lives cannot be separated so easily. Children’s lives, as much as those of adults, are located within societal structures, including those of violence. One of the sites in which such structures can have significant effects can be within the domestic sphere. While research has shown that domestic violence can have detrimental effects upon children’s health and development (Cleaver, Unell, and Aldgate 2011; Edleson 1999; Kitzmann, Gaylord, Holt, and Kenny 2003; Osofsky 2003), more research is needed that explicitly focuses on engaging with children’s perspectives on their experiences. While there are some exceptions (see for example Stanley, Miller, and Richardson-Foster 2012), overall there is a lack of understanding of the ways in which children make sense of early exposure to domestic violence. This is important because the ways that children come to understand such experiences, and their role within them, will also impact on the ways that they navigate their adult lives. Stories of how children live within and beyond violent homes need to be told.

While the home is often a site that is romanticised, homes can also be uncomfortable spaces where children can be unable to feel at home (Valentine 1993). They can be fearful spaces where children can learn to be on high alert (Nissen 2013), perhaps anticipating interpersonal violence between adults or towards them to occur at any moment. In the cases where violent acts might not be directly targeted at the child, children are still implicated in this violence (Nissen 2013). Children can learn to carefully manage their actions as they navigate an unstable emotional terrain in an effort to maintain some sense of equilibrium for themselves and their family members (Nissen 2013). The external violence they witness can become internalised, with the possibility of leading to acts of violence toward the self or others (Osofsky 1997). Their bodies absorb memories of trauma, not necessarily available to conscious thought (Walkerdine, Olsvold and Rudberg 2013), but which can pattern children’s embodied knowledges of ways in which actions can seem to act as catalysts for violence. These emotional experiences live in the body and can continue to have resonance in adulthood in ways that cannot be spoken (Walkerdine, Olsvold and Rudberg 2013). This recognition of childhood trauma as a bodily experience gives rise to questions about how early experiences are transmitted into adulthood.

Attending to home and homemaking might offer some insights here. Massey defines place ‘as a particular constellation within the wider topographies of space and as in process, as unfinished business’ (Massey 2005, p. 131). The homes of adults who were exposed to domestic violence in childhood are unfinished and layered within aspirations of what home could be and become (Blunt and Dowling 2006). New materialism studies account for the ‘nonhuman’ as well as ‘human’ forms of agency (Barad 2007), reflecting the ways in which the material world is implicated within children’s trajectories. For example, studies of home have shown how the use of family photographs enabled women to create a sense of ‘homeliness’ (Rose 2003). Blunt and Dowling (2006) also argue that ‘the choice and placement of objects such as furniture can be part of making houses family homes’ (pg. 112). Their research shows that the dwelling place is ‘intimately connected to sites and relations beyond it’ (pg. 114). The home I have made for myself as an adult represents a space of safety. It is a place full of constants, upon the walls hang paintings and photographs that I love, my favourite illustrated texts sit on my bookshelves waiting to fill my mind with wonder, my dog always sits dutifully beside me, the wood burning stove is ever eager to warm my living room, my collection of hats stir me into character in the morning, my piano (while underplayed) waits patiently to fill my house with sound. These objects house me as much as I house them. They are symbolic of the home I am making and aspire to make. My home is always moving, I make my home and at the same time it makes me. Thinking about how people’s lives are made and re-made within the home could offer insights into how people create new lives for themselves and their families after early exposure to domestic violence.

Blunt, A. & Dowling, R. (2006) Home: Key Ideas in Geography. Abingdon: Routledge.

Barad, K. (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press

Cleaver, H., Unell, I. & Aldgate, J. (2011) The Impact of Parental Mental Illness, Learning Disability, Problem Alcohol and Drug Use and Domestic Violence on Children’s Safety and Development (2nd edition). London: TSO.

Edleson, J. L. (1999) Children’s witnessing of adult domestic violence. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 14, 839–870.

James, A. (2013) Socialising Childhood. Oxon: Palgrave

Kitzmann, K. M., Gaylord, N.K., Holt, A.R. & Kenny, E.D. (2003) Child witnesses to domestic violence: a meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 71, 339– 352.

Massey, D. (2005) For Space. London: Sage

Nissen, L. (2013) Curriculum and the Life Erratic: The Geographic Cure. Sense Publishers

Osofsky, J. D. (1997). Children in a violent society. New York: The Guildford Press.

Osofsky, J. D. (2003) Prevalence of children’s exposure to domestic violence and child maltreatment: implications for prevention and intervention. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 6: 161–170

Stanley, N., Miller, P., & Richardson-Foster, H. (2012) Engaging with children’s and parents’ perspectives on domestic violence. Child and Family Social Work, 17: 192–201

Walkerdine, V., Olsvold, A., & Rudberg, M. (2013) Researching Embodiment and Intergenerational Trauma using the work of Davoine and Gaudilliere: History walked in the door. Subjectivity. 6: 272-297


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