BFL’s Freedom House DV Shelter For People With Disabilities: Talking to Children about Domestic Violence
Studies reveal that 80 to 90% of children who live in violent homes are keenly aware of the violence. (“Effects of Domestic Violence on Children,” Mediation Quarterly)* The fact is, children often come to programs like Barrier Free Living’s Freedom House Emergency Shelter and understand more than we may think. The key is finding and developing safe ways for the children to speak about, and heal after experiencing the violence.
Children’s exposure to violence can occur in various ways.
Some children experience the violence by Hearing an incident. For example, the child is in her bedroom and can hear the yelling. Other children Witness the violence by staring at their parents as they physically fight. A number of children may try to Intervene or actually be part of the violence. An example may be a child trying to push the father away from the mother and the child gets hit. Lastly, a child may experience the aftermath of a violent incident. This may involve seeing their mother with a black eye.
To complicate the issue when working with children, domestic violence is often a “family secret.” A social worker may face challenges initially when attempting to address the violence in the home.
It is important to keep in mind that children react differently when asked to talk about the violence. Some children may get angry, try and change the subject, walk away, or listen quietly. Others may be ready to talk about the violence witnessed openly.
Following are tips on how to begin a conversation about domestic violence.
If possible, involve the non-abusive parent in the conversation to give the child “permission” to speak about the violence. Recognize that talking about the violence is difficult or scary. Assure the child that they did nothing wrong. Some children blame themselves for the violence. You can point out that the person who acted violently is responsible for their behavior.
For younger children, going into details may be very confusing. Simplify the situation: “Mommy and daddy had a fight” OR “Mommy has taken you to a safe place where there will be no more fighting.”
For older children/adolescents, be prepared to answer more specific questions about the abuse/abuser. In your conversation, try not to put down the abuser as this is usually a very emotionally confusing time. Do not make any promises that are not realistic. For example, promising that parents will get back together.
One crucial point: if the child is still living in the abusive household develop a safety plan. This will help the child be safe, know where and how to get help. You can find an example of a safety plan at: http://www.acadv.org/childplan.html
Resources for additional support
If your child is school age, you can reach out to the school guidance counselor for assistance
Local mental health clinic for counseling: Life Net 1-800-LIFENET
Non-residential domestic violence counseling: New York City Domestic Violence Resource Directory http://www.nyc.gov/html/ocdv/downloads/pdf/ResourceDirectory_2008.pdf
Domestic Violence Shelter: Safe Horizon 1-800-621-HOPE
National Parent Helpline 1-855-4A PARENT (1-855-427-2736) Monday-Friday, 10 am -7 PM Pacific Standard Time http://www.nationalparenthelpline.org/
Ms. B came into Freedom House with her two children, Christine, 5 years old and Jonathon, 12 years old.
During intake, Ms. B requested that I assist her in talking to her children about why they moved to a domestic violence shelter.
I first met with Ms. B and Christine and began by getting permission from Ms. B to talk about the violence. Once Ms. B told Christine it was okay to talk about the violence Christine spoke about seeing her dad hit her mom.
I explained that they came to Freedom House so she doesn’t have to see this happen again. Christine was very excited to know this.
I then met with Jonathon. Again, Ms. B gave permission to talk about the violence.
Jonathon said he saw his parents fight all the time and on several occasions actually had to pull his dad off of his mom. Jonathon said he understood what his dad did was wrong. However, dad was good to him and he expressed the fact that he missed his father. We discussed these mixed feelings about the situation. Over time Jonathon began to understand that it is okay to love his father but also that dad hurt his mother very badly. Jonathon also learned that what he witnessed was an unhealthy relationship and was learning about healthy relationships.
Throughout their stay at Freedom House both Christine and Jonathon received individual counseling to talk about their experiences witnessing domestic violence. The family participated in individual and group counseling to understand their own experiences related to the violence in the home. They were able to begin the healing process and adjusted to their new lives violence free.
*“The Effects of DV on Children” http://www.acadv.org/children.html#statistics.