University of Tasmania
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There was a brick wall, and there was the ocean : stories of surviving childhood domestic abuse

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posted on 2023-05-28, 11:58 authored by Whatley, N
For too long, research has described children as passive and damaged witnesses to physical violence who are at risk of reproducing intergenerational domestic abuse. Considering this research, I was curious about whether survivors themselves would describe their experiences in this way. I began to wonder how survivors made sense of their experiences, what influenced their interpretations, and what this might mean for how they respond to domestic abuse in their childhoods. Although research has recently begun to explore children's first-hand accounts of domestic abuse, often the safeguards needed to conduct interviews with children preclude the participation of those young survivors who continue to live in situations of domestic abuse, as well as those who never contact counselling services or shelters. The absence of these stories may exclude children with more developed coping strategies, and those who are less adversely affected by their experiences and therefore do not require professional intervention. To ethically include these unexplored stories, I interviewed adult survivors about their retrospective accounts of childhood domestic abuse. Specifically, this study examined how adult survivors describe and interpret childhood experiences of domestic abuse perpetrated by father figures against mothers. To avoid reproducing research that labelled survivors as passive and damaged witnesses to domestic abuse, I used a feminist intersectional approach to recognise domestic abuse as an act of power and control, and to allow for the diversity of survivors' experiences to emerge. Using a narrative inquiry methodology, I invited survivors to discuss the aspects of their experiences they deemed to be most important. I conducted 19 interviews with survivors, and analysed these using a combination of thematic and narrative structural analysis. In contrast to previous research, the results of this study demonstrated that survivors experienced an everyday alertness to the threat of abuse. Perpetrators were experienced as omnipresent through survivors' relational experiences of coercive control. Despite surviving daily in this oppressive environment, survivors continually engaged in actions that mitigated and resisted the perpetration of abuse. Experiences of intersecting oppressive forces such as class, race and the status of children compounded and diversified survivors' experiences and limited how survivors could enact resistance. This research incorporates into the childhood domestic abuse literature a broader explanation of how young people experience and respond when living with domestic abuse that is inclusive of tactics of coercive control. It is clear from these findings that care must be taken in both research and practice to recognise children's strengths as a way of building their sense of resilience. Acknowledging how survivors of childhood domestic abuse actively respond, resist and cope when living with domestically abusive fathers can work to achieve this aim. Furthermore, understanding the different ways in which oppressive social structures such as adultism, classism, racism, ageism and gender systems compound children's experiences and limit their responses to domestic abuse has critical implications for the development of social policies that affect children.


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