Addressing the pandemic within the pandemic: domestic abuse rises during lockdown
When the shelter-in-place protocols intended to help contain the spread of COVID-19 were put in place two months ago, all Americans were forced to grapple with a circumstance they could not have imagined. Most families experienced boredom and perhaps a sense of monotony during the lockdown, but for those living with an abuser, said Cynthya Campbell Palmer, director of University of Houston-Clear Lake’s Psychological Services Clinic and clinical assistant professor of clinical psychology, the quarantine mandate was the worst-case scenario.
“This is a pandemic within the pandemic,” said Campbell Palmer, who is also a licensed clinical psychologist. “Families experiencing violence against adults or children were already in crisis before the pandemic. Now they’re further in crisis. The family system was already taxed, and with the increase in violence at home, due to adults not being able to handle their stress appropriately, it’s taxed even more.”
But during the lockdown, Campbell Palmer said, it’s not just the adults who are having trouble handling their stress. “The kids are stressed as well, so it becomes the perfect storm for significant and severe violence,” she said. “It’s difficult to find updated statistics at this point, because the situation is ongoing. Increased reports to authorities mean increased violence, but there are some who say reports are decreasing. That doesn’t mean there’s less violence. It means people are too afraid to report and the sources of support are limited, so in some cases, they have no choice but to stay with their abuser.”
Some people might not know if their local shelter is open at the moment, Campbell Palmer said. “We always advise people in this situation to create a safety plan—get to a safe place and make a call,” she said. “But if you’re always stuck with the person who’s abusing you, where do you find that safe place? Previously, you might wait for the person to go to work, but now, many people have lost their jobs. Control is a central element of domestic violence. If you say you’d like to go out for a short time, the abuser might insist on going with you, watching the time you’re gone or tracking you on a GPS.”
A new safety plan needs to be created, said Campbell Palmer. “Find a moment where you can make a call to an emergency shelter or local law enforcement if there is immediate danger,” she said. “This can include calling from a bathroom or a closet. You may also try having a safe word you provide to a friend or family member who knows that if you say this word in a conversation it means to get help.”
Campbell Palmer said that although finding support might be a little more difficult under the current circumstances, there are still ways try diffusing the stress that may be mounting in an already-stressed family. “There are many families in which one of the adults feels as though they might be on the verge of hurting a child because they’re overwhelmed,” she said. “That feeling crosses all socio-economic backgrounds and financial statuses. If they’re fearing they are reaching a breaking point, I would ask them to remind themselves that we are in a pandemic and there is no longer ‘normal.’
“There’s no way you can continue to force your former life into this environment. It’s not working, so you have to adjust your expectations,” she said. “If the adults in the family can’t manage, then the children definitely won’t. Things simply aren’t going to go according to routine.”
She said that creating a ‘new normal’ can be helpful. “Try creating a new routine and if it doesn’t work, be flexible and try something else,” she said. “Understand that children are struggling as well. Their stress is real, but it presents itself very differently than adults. Adults might have headaches or other physical pain, difficulty sleeping, irritability. Kids might act out more and struggle with managing their emotions. They don’t understand what’s going on, and that can be very distressing for an adult because they might never have seen this behavior in their child before.”
Campbell Palmer said that there are several webinars and activities available for kids via Zoom that can help reduce stress on parents. Engage in fun and creative activities with your children such as exercising, making crafts and art projects. “Screen time is OK right now,” she said. “People who feel that they’re on the verge of losing control need to take a break. Teaching children relaxation, deep breathing and self-care can also be helpful. It’s good to take quiet time for yourself as well. Kids will model after you.”
She added that Psychological Services Clinic at UH-Clear Lake is easily accessible to the community and individual therapy sessions are available at low cost via Zoom. “Telehealth services are ongoing and sessions are completely private and secure,” she said. “We offer extended hours to provide as much flexibility as we can to the community. It’s very easy to connect with us and seek help.”
Learn more about UHCL’s Psychological Services Clinic online.