We seem to have more boys than girls living in the domestic violence shelter where I work with kids 3-16 as a volunteer. My theory is that when the mothers of sons decide to leave a violent home or come to weekly support groups, it is often because they see their sons starting to mimic their partner's abusive behavior or because the mothers fear this will happen.
That's not to say girls aren't affected by violence in the home. They definitely are. Some become violent themselves, especially as teens. They are more likely, however to show the effect of violence by withdrawing, becoming quiet or depressed, or being overly obedient to older siblings and parents. They may also be supportive of Mom when Dad is gone and this can lead Mom to think "She's all right."
The shelter provides support groups for mothers and childcare for their children during these groups. Recently we had a boy, "Jason," who exhibited abusive behavior. He was also very impulsive, argumentative with the female babysitters at the shelter, and verbally aggressive. In one of my small, structured groups, these problems were minimal. In fact, when with me, he never spent a minute in Time Out or received three checks, thereby losing his "treat." As soon as he joined the larger, more stimulating group run by the babysitters, however, his behavior quickly deteriorated and he was very difficult to control.
What was striking, however, was that each successive week he spent with us, brought a gradual change. He became somewhat better behaved in the large group, and as he began to trust me more, more oppositional, interruptive, and verbally abusive in my group. It was obvious that he could control these behaviors because as soon as he got 2 checks for unacceptable behavior, he put his head down (an earlier suggestion of mine) and caused no more trouble.
Recently, he became aggressive outside during playtime. I immediately put him in
Time Out for five minutes. He pouted, growled and stomped to the Time Out area I chose. When his "time" was up, he took responsiblity for what he did (a first) and ran back to active play. A few minutes later, he became aggressive again and when he saw me approaching, sat down on the grass, hid his head, and stayed there until he calmed down. He seemed genuinely proud of himself when I commented on his decision to "cool it" all on his own.
Not a miracle, but not something his dad ever would have done. The abusers blame their victims for their "temper," alcohol for "losing it," "stress" for lack of self-control. In reality, abusers usually have excellent self-control outside the house. They don't often beat up their co-workers, try to intimidate their bosses, or refuse to take responsibility for their mistakes--at work, in the neighborhood, or on the highway. They are often described as nice guys, helpful, charming, caring, etc.
"Jason" was not fooled, however, by this dicotomy. He began to show us that he wanted to be good and nice and respected by us. He knew we weren't afraid of him and he eventually accepted his subordinate place in this grown-women hierarchy.
Let's hope he keeps hold of this different way of looking at life. He sure seems nice, charming, caring...