Teaching Alternatives to Family VIolence
Shane Gomes is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at California State University in Los Angeles, where he teaches courses in human violence, child maltreatment and family violence,
In his clinical practice, he works with parents, children and adolescents as individuals, but he also works with couples and whole-family units. Through his practice, Gomes has regularly seen the effects of family violence and child maltreatment firsthand.
In this 2010 interview, he spoke with Gina Stepp about why communities and individuals tolerate family violence, and what can be done to help families change their patterns of behavior toward more positive interactions.
GS You’re a practicing clinical psychologist as well as faculty at CSULA teaching courses on family violence. Do you have clients who are dealing with issues of violence within the family?
SG Yes, we have a clinic here at CSULA where the MFT students see clients, so we get a lot of court-ordered cases. Unfortunately the clients that tend to come—since they’re being forced to come—don’t tend to make as much progress, because they’re just here to meet a quota. They’re generally not self-motivated to change their behaviors.
GS In your experience are there common individual personality characteristics of abusers among the people you see?
SG You do definitely see some people who have a personality disorder—some of the classic DSM-IV personality disorders. And I’m noticing too that drug and alcohol use seems to be a big factor.
GS What about community factors? Do communities have a responsibility in combating family violence?
SG I definitely think that communities should do much more education—cities could even offer classes on education about the issue, as well as encouraging the abused to report—there are so many victims, particularly women, who don’t have the adequate resources to report.
GS How would you approach education in a community? Mainly through intervention programs for families who are already caught up in the cycle of violence, or are there also preventive educational approaches you would use?
SG Absolutely, there are classes to be offered that could help couples who are struggling to learn skills for better communication and teach them not to use violence as a means of responding. With my clients I do a lot of psychoeducation: I have them read books or articles so they’re aware this is a serious problem. Cognitive behavioral approaches tend to be most effective. I will often give homework to help with communication, where they practice listening to their partner. But there are also thought-stopping techniques and other ways you can help people learn to be accountable for their behavior. You can even do a behavior chart, where you literally write down every instance when you cuss at your spouse or treat them inappropriately, and there can be a consequence attached to it.
Much of what we all do goes back to the family we were raised in. Just last week I was doing a couples therapy session where it came out that the husband’s mother had said something very demeaning to him. I asked him, “How does it make you feel that your mother called you this negative word?” and he responded, “Oh, I’m used to that, she’s always done that with me.” And his wife was the one who said, “Honey, your mother should never speak to you that way.” So there’s a lot of abusive language we’re brought up with and we become used to it and don’t even see it as problematic. Part of educating people is teaching them that these forms of communication are not appropriate—that they’re not okay.
GS Do some of the misperceptions about what’s okay and what isn't come from the community as well as the family?
SG Sure, absolutely, especially the media now. There’s so much in the media that makes us think it’s okay to yell and cuss at your spouse or friend; it’s tolerated on so many levels. In particular, some of the women I've worked with who are victims of violence are so used to verbal abuse that they’re shocked when I tell them it isn’t appropriate for people to treat them that way.
GS Is it difficult getting both spouses into therapy together when there is abuse?
SG Oh yes, nine times out of ten it’s the wife dragging the husband in. If she’s successful, these are the better cases. When she’s not, it is usually a higher-risk situation and these are more likely to end up in court eventually.
GS And what if there are children? Even if the children aren't targeted along with the abused parent Is it wrong to assume they're escaping the effects of abuse?
SG Yes, a lot of research is showing that children who witness the onging abuse of a parent are traumatically affected by it. It’s actually reportable now. Mandated child abuse reporters here in the state of California are required to report if children are witnessing violence in their home, whether or not they are being physically attacked..
GS I assume you’ve also worked with children who are abused. What are some of the effects you see in these kids?
SG Yes I’ve worked with children of all ages who have been abused. Children who have been neglected tend to have a lot of trust issues with their parents—and in these cases the parents have need of education, but the children also need education about what’s appropriate care.
With physically abused children we work with the Department of Children and Family Services first, to determine whether the perpetrator is going to be reunified with the child. First you want to work with the child to allow them talk about the abuse and then get them to work through their anger, gain some mastery over what happened and learn to forgive their parents. Obviously depending on the age of the child, you have to consider what you’re going to allow as far as proximity to the parent. But it is also very difficult for them to be separated from parents who are incarcerated. Despite the abuse, they might not understand why their parent has been taken away or why they can’t live with their parent. Especially with the younger ones, they often don’t realize that their situation was abusive, that it wasn’t okay for the parent to slap and punch them all the time. It’s all they know. They still have that attachment. Their mother or father can be the most wicked or evil person on the planet but they will still love them.
I had a client years ago whose father literally murdered his mother and the father’s in jail now. But the boy would tell me “I still love my dad even though he did this horrible thing, killing my mom. I still love him, he’s still my father.”
GS What’s the goal then? Is there any hope of reuniting children and parents in some of these situations?
SG If the parent gets the proper education and therapy to work through their behavior, it’s possible. I’ve seen lots of cases where parents have done their program and have gone to counseling and worked on their issues and achieved a lot of growth. Then it would be okay to reunify them. Of course you’d do family therapy to transition the children back into the home. But it takes time.
I’ve heard of cases where children were taken away from the parents because of abuse and the kids lived in a foster home. Then mom and dad got their act together, went to therapy—did anger management—worked on their issues and Social Services said, “Okay we’re ready to allow these children to return to the parents’ home. But before we do that, let’s have you all go to family therapy together—even though you don’t live together right now, you go to family therapy for 3, 4 or 5 months and try to work as a family on patterns of interaction.” This gives the family a chance to learn to get along with each other well before they actually live in the same house together. I’ve seen that work very well.
GS So you’ve seen happy endings.
SG Yes, I have. Sad to say, not as many as unhappy endings, but I have seen some.
GS You mentioned earlier that the increase in substance abuse and mental disorders are an important factor in family violence. What else is connected?
SG Poverty has a huge influence. The research shows that those living below poverty level have higher levels of child abuse and family violence. Part of the reason is that the neighborhoods they are in have a higher tolerance for violence. But there is also less education. And where you have less education you have less income, so there tends to be more abuse and violence in those communities. And again, they tend to also be less educated—not only academically, but also about what is appropriate interaction.
GS Does this help explain why neighbors who know about abuse stand by and fail to report it? Or is that ordinary bystander apathy?
SG Well, bystander apathy has to do with strangers—you assume someone else is going to take responsibility. It’s the concept of diffusion of responsibility: you figure someone else will call the police. So that might come into play in the case of neighbors. But when family members know and don’t report, there are many more dynamics at play because there’s the secrecy and the fear of shame. We don’t want mommy and daddy—or our son, daughter, sister, or brother, depending on your relationship to the parents—to be hauled away by a police officer and arrested. There are many reasons why someone might not call. They don’t want to meddle in someone else’s business, for instance. Part of it is just a lack of awareness, or even denial. They don’t want to believe it can really be happening.
It takes a Chris Brown beating up Rhianna—a famous musician—to really bring the issue of domestic violence to the spotlight. When celebrities are doing it, the issue comes under the media spotlight for a while before it goes back under wraps again.
GS The media spotlight can be good in a lot of ways, but I wonder whether it has some negative effects as well. For instance, violence for the sake of vengeance is often applauded in the media, isn’t it?
SG Right. There’s a great movie called “Sin by Silence.” It’s about women who were physically abused by their husbands who actually murdered their husbands and have gone to jail. The movie is an attempt to raise awareness. These incarcerated women are trying to get out the message that the answer is not to murder someone to end the abuse. You don’t tolerate the abuse, but you don’t join them in the violence. You need to find an appropriate response before it gets to the level of murder.