A still from the new anti-violence advert. Photo: SCMP Pictures

Children who see domestic violence often perpetuate the cycle: experts

Children who witness abuse in the home often grow up to perpetuate the cycle of violence, say social workers and people they have helped

Jennifer Ngo

Ah Lai grew up seeing her father regularly beating her mother after his bouts of gambling. It made her vow never to let a man lay a hand on her. If there was to be violence she would be the one to inflict it.

"I felt like I needed to beat [my husband] to death to deal with my hate," recalled Ah Lai, not her real name.

The worst fights happened in the years up to 2010, when the 38-year-old's relationship with her civil servant husband hit problems.

"In my life experience, violence was used to deal with everything and so it was what I automatically resorted to," she recalls.

The clashes left the couple bloodied and bruised, their home smashed up and their daughter scared stiff. Eventually, the family was put in touch with the Social Welfare Department's batterer intervention programme.

Ultimately it was concern for her daughter that led Ah Lai to open up and seek help.

Social worker Ringo Lam Ka-kui, who works on the programme, said Ah Lai's experience was typical of people involved in domestic abuse. Many had either witnessed or been victims of abuse, with more than 50 per cent of people who abused their spouse having a history of family violence.

And without help, the "trait" is likely to be passed on to their children, he added.

"We realise that family violence is almost hereditary - it tends to pass on to the next generation, and the next," Lam said. "It's extremely hard to break that cycle without help."

The story is similar for Ah Shing, a retired civil servant who saw his mother beat his drunken father for routinely squandering his earnings on alcohol.

"The beatings would bring a few days of lucidity and a somewhat normal family life, so [the violence] worked - to a certain extent," he said. Ah Shing ended up laying his hands on his wife as well, which he admitted affected his son growing up.

"Even though my son is now married and has emigrated to Australia, I want to deal with my problem and show him that my relationship with his mum has improved," he said. "I want this to be a positive thing for him and his future family."

Since 2006, the intervention programme has run small-group sessions at which male abusers are led through self-reflection exercises and helped to deal with arguments and rage. Sessions for women were added last year.

"Helping batterers focus on the effects their actions have on their next generation helps them to take responsibility for their actions and helps them to manage their emotions," Lam said.

The Social Welfare Department recorded 3,836 cases of spousal abuse last year, the highest figure since 2010.

In the first nine months of this year, there were 3,012 reported spousal or partner battering cases. About half involved families with children below the age of 12.

To raise awareness of the effects of family violence on children, the department has launched a new campaign, with a set of television announcements and posters and pamphlets.


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Why domestic violence can run in the family