When you read that the lifeless body of a one-year-old child has been taken to hospital, in desperation you perversely want to believe that the cause was a tragic accident or a fatal illness the parents were aware of. Your heart rate increases and muscles start contracting by the thought that a human is capable of brutally beating a vulnerable child under the guise of discipline. One-year-old Arman Grigoryan was, in fact, beaten to death by his stepfather. When Armen’s mother wanted to call an ambulance, she was threatened by her husband who instead started preparing for the child’s burial. When she finally took Armen to hospital, it was already late.
Last month, UNICEF office in Armenia held a two-day conference to discuss child abuse in Armenia. Under the slogan “Make the Invisible Visible,” the conference focused on violence as an experience, which negatively impacts every aspect of a child’s life and prioritized the development of preventive mechanisms. Currently, the Government of Armenia is developing a strategic roadmap aimed at addressing the issue.
Child abuse is a topic that many would agree exists in Armenia, but it is not perceived as an issue requiring immediate intervention. In fact, no one really talks about. To understand what does and does not constitute as violence, it is important to stress that families have the right and responsibility to direct and guide their children to implement their rights until they are 18 years old. Article 5 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child states that “parties shall respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents [or legal guardians] to provide, in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child, appropriate direction and guidance.” Clearly, “appropriate direction and guidance” do not entail or envision any form of violence against a child or children.
Of course, not all children who are being subjected to violence in Armenia, suffer the same fate as Armen did, but numbers of those experiencing physical and psychological abuse are quite alarming. The 2015-16 Demographic and Health Survey conducted in 7,893 Armenian households shows that about 65 percent of children in surveyed families experienced psychological aggression while 38 percent experienced some form of physical punishment.
Benjamin Perks, the Chairman of the Working Group on Violence Against Children at UNICEF Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia, who was participating in the conference in Yerevan explained that Sweden, for instance, had similar patterns of violence in 1970s. “The only reason they do not hit their children now is because of policy intervention, and not necessarily due to cultural or genetic predisposition not to be violent,” he said. Violence against children is not culturally or socially defined, and instead is a characteristic common across all societies, ethnic groups, and social classes and is based on intergenerational transmission. Of course, there are some societies which practice extremely cruel forms of violence, such as female genital mutilation in African, Middle Eastern, and Asian countries.
When a child is born, they are biologically programmed to move towards a loving parent and if they are rejected, it goes against all of their instincts and sets them off a wrong trajectory. Perks notes all parents derail sometimes and make a mistake but if the mistake is in the context of a stable, loving relationship that is violence free, it will not have a lasting effect on the child. The impact, however, is much more severe when exposure to violence becomes a chronic pattern over time. It not only affects the development of a child’s brain and body, but also gives them a wrong mental model of relationships which they then transmit to their children.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, which was conducted in an effort to understand the impact of child abuse and exposure to violence on the quality of life, includes the following 10 categories: physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; physical or emotional neglect; parental mental illness, substance dependence, incarceration; parental separation or divorce; or domestic violence. The study revealed a close relationship between ACE scores and health outcomes: the higher your ACE score, the worse your health outcomes. Perks explained that in an average classroom, teachers are dealing with children, most of whom have been affected by at least one trauma, a large number by two or even more, and there are some affected by four or more. A person with an ACE score of four, is 10 times more likely to develop alcohol dependance, three times more likely to be a smoker, two and a half times more likely to be diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and 12 times more likely to attempt suicide.
The situation in Armenia is the combination of two equally important factors: parents automatically replicate the psychological model they experienced during their own childhood and on top of that they do uninformed parenting. “If we traveled to regions of Armenia and randomly asked people what they know about child brain development and how violence derails that process, the majority, if not all of them would be unaware,” said Perks. It is critical to engage and inform parents about the lasting impact of ACEs and reinforce that message through different channels so that over time it becomes the norm. “Culture does not drive violence but cultural norms can prevent violence,” added Perks. “They have to go hand in hand with services that break the intergenerational cycle of violence.”
Even though a large number of children are subjected to various forms of violence in Armenia according to the Demographic and Health Survey, most of those cases are not being reported to responsible authorities because it is a taboo topic. Also, traditionally people believe in the sovereignty of the male head of the household whose authority is not questioned and who is the one entitled to solve all the issues within the family. The cases, which are reported are normally those in which a child’s safety at home is at serious risk. Access to Justice Programme Officer at UNICEF Armenia, Viktoria Ohanyan identified two equally critical reasons for the lack of reporting. “Most importantly, it is the overall attitude of society towards reporting, which is negatively perceived and discourages individuals to speak up about the violence inflicted on them or others,” she explained. “But sometimes people fail to realize that reporting at the right time can become a preventive mechanism.”
Traditional lack of trust towards law-enforcement authorities is another reason, the improvement of which can potentially increase the number of reported cases. “Victims of violence have to be confident that after reporting, the response would be targeted and effective,” said Ohanyan. But according to Perks, an even more important concern is prevention. “You are trying to prevent 65 percent of children affected by psychological aggression and 38 percent by physical punishment, yet you are responding to only a small number of cases through child protection services,” he said.
To understand the lifelong consequences violence can have, it is important to differentiate between three types of stress: positive, tolerable, and toxic. The first is needed for the child’s healthy development and is characterized by brief increase of heart rate and elevation of hormone levels. Tolerable stress activates the body’s alert system in response to severe difficulties. It usually occurs when a child is in a violent place, conflict zone or area affected by a natural disaster but is surrounded by loving and protective parents. And finally, toxic stress is characterized by the prolonged activation of the stress response system and occurs when parents are often the threat themselves. In those situations, the child’s body is in constant alert mode; stress hormones are released, heart starts beating faster, pupils dilate, all of which affect the child’s brain architecture, and the development of cardiovascular, immune and hormonal systems. It gives a child a level of stress that they cannot cope with.
What happens to a child’s brain when under the permanent influence of toxic stress is particularly alarming. The brain has three broad decision making areas: primitive part of the brain, which allows us to perform basic survival functions such as breathing or digesting food, social-emotional area, which regulates emotions and allows us to make connections, and the rational part of the brain, which regulates more complex bodily functions and is responsible for rational thinking. Children who have been raised in families with stability, love, and protection, usually develop a creative mindset and effectively navigate the rational part of the brain. While those who were raised in chaotic and violent environments, regularly experienced high levels of trauma, are more inclined to suffer from long-term diseases and not fully develop the capacity of the rational part of the brain.
Around 87 percent of brain development is completed by the age of six according to Perks, who says it should be a top priority for Armenia to guarantee that every child between the ages of 3 to 6 is in preschool, and before that is raised in a nurturing environment. Government policies need to address early childhood and adolescent brain development, because the impact on social, economic, and democratic development of society is significant.
Perks also explained that several studies conducted by experts in the field show that in situations when a parent is stressed, tired or rushed and the child comes forward with their needs and desires, the parent’s aggressive reaction has three characteristics. Firstly, violence exercised against the child is not planned, and the parent is responding spontaneously based on emotions and without thinking much about the consequences. Second, the parent’s reaction is based on a firm belief that the child’s behaviour is intentional, and the motive is to irritate them. In fact, children have no calculated intentions and misbehave simply because they cannot find a solution to their problem. And finally, after exercising some form of violence against the child, parents immediately regret it.
Considering these three characteristics, parents need to acknowledge that optimum child parenting requires a consistent strategy over time. Simple eye level conversation with the child is one effective tactic which not only allows them to make a connection but also becomes a learning experience for the child. A working paper published by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University explains that the impact of exposure to intense or persistent fear triggering events becomes vividly illustrated in adolescence. If a child was raised in an abusive environment and every time when faced with a problem could not approach his/her parents, a relationship of trust between them will be broken. In adolescence when they would already face real and complex life problems, children would be less likely to approach their parents for advice.
Because experiences like abuse and exposure to violence are hidden, it is difficult to make assumptions about which parent is more inclined to resort to violence in Armenian families. The available data also does not specify whether a female or male child is more likely to be treated violently or which form of violence would be exercised on a child, based on gender. These questions need further research and clarification, if the Government wants to develop policies aimed at improving the performance of parents.
Perks believes that patterns of violence are reducing globally, and the process is accompanied by improvements in the protection of human rights and rule of law. But improvements are not much talked about because of how fast information about cases of violence is now being transmitted via social media, which makes it very easy to create insecurity and panic among people. “The world is gradually becoming a less violent place,” he said. The picture is yet not promising in Armenia because compared to other countries, cases of violence against children are not talked about. The goal should not be about creating insecurity among people but rather raising awareness so that parents make informed decisions and think twice about the consequences of how they treat their child.