If you’re a survivor with children, you have probably tried to shield them from the abuse as much as possible.
However, talking to children about what’s happening can help them to feel less powerless, confused and angry. Below is some advice to help you. If you have any concerns or worries, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us at West Cornwall Women’s Aid.
1. Do talk to your children – and listen to them. Most children will appreciate an opportunity to acknowledge the abuse and to talk about what they are feeling.
2. Try to be honest about the situation, without frightening them, in an age appropriate manner. Reassure them that the abuse is not their fault and that they are not responsible for adult behaviour.
3. Explain to them that abuse is wrong and that it does not solve problems. Remember, your children will naturally trust you – try not to break that trust by directly lying to them.
4. Encourage your children to talk about their wishes and feelings. You could do this perhaps by doing an activity together, or encouraging them to draw or write about what is happening and how they feel about it. Your child’s teacher may be able to help you with this. Sometimes children will wait until they feel safe and are no longer in the abusive/violent environment before they start to talk about their feelings.
5. Tell them where to get more information. You could suggest that your children look at the Women’s Aid website for children and young people, The Hideout. This website has information, activities, a quiz and stories of children living with domestic abuse.
6. Teach them how to get emergency help. Show them how to dial 999 but make sure they are aware that they aren’t responsible for protecting you if you are being attacked.
7. Praise them. Help to boost their self esteem by regularly giving them praise, attention and affection.
8. Ask for help. Demonstrate that asking for help is a good thing – do it yourself so your children can see there is nothing to be ashamed of. You may believe it is best for your children if you try to keep the family together in order to provide the security of a home and father. However, children will feel more secure and will be safer living with one parent in a stable environment than with two parents when the environment is unstable and abusive.
Going to court can be a daunting experience but there are rules the court has to follow in cases concerning children and domestic abuse.
If you have a legal problem you should seek proper legal advice.
Rights of Women are a good organisation to speak to and provide free legal advice on domestic violence and abuse, finances and property on relationship breakdown and arrangements for children. They have a helpline and lots of useful information on their website. Including:
Coram Children’s Legal Centre’s Child Law Advice Service provides free legal advice and information on child and family issues. They have a helpline which offers free advice between Monday-Friday, 8am to 6pm on 0300 330 5480. They also offer a paid for call back service with a legal advisor which costs £25.
The impact of domestic abuse on children
We know that domestic abuse can impact children of any age in many ways. Children don’t need to have witnessed violence or been hurt themselves to be affected.
Your child may present with concerning behaviours such as lashing out, avoiding school, becoming more clingy to you or complaining more of physical pain such as tummy aches.
However, it is also useful to remember that sometimes impact may be less visible; children may become more withdrawn or become very well behaved as they don’t wish to put any more strain on their parents.
A child’s brain is forming some of its most important connections and systems in the first 18 months of life and these are shaped by their experiences of the world around them. When a child is in a stressful, dangerous or unpredictable environment this activates their stress response system which can make them hypervigilant, always trying to monitor danger. This can become over active with the result that even when the child is safe their brain may continue to feel that they are not, resulting in them becoming jumpy or seeming angry and hard to manage.
In school age children this can also impact on their concentration and ability to make friends. In younger children this means that their development may become delayed as so much energy is going in to keeping them safe.
The most important thing is that you continue to tell your child that you love them; provide lots of affection and reassurance.
It is useful to answer any questions they may have as openly and honestly as you can. You should try to do this in an age appropriate way and keep explanations as simple as possible.
You may want to set aside some dedicated time to do this when you are not preoccupied with other activities and when your child is feeling calm.
Help your child to express and name their feelings – model verbalising how you feel when something makes you angry worried or upset. There are also books for children of different ages which can help you talk about feelings.
You may want to seek some therapeutic support for your child, which can provide a space for them to process their experiences and express difficult feelings.
Finding activities for your child to boost their self-esteem can be really beneficial for example a sports or drama club.
Make sure you still make time to do nice activities with your child- playing, colouring, watching a movie, going for a nature walk….
Look after yourself! You cannot support your children unless you are being supported. You may want to find some counselling for yourself. Do not be too harsh on yourself – what has happened is not your fault either and you are coping with a very stressful situation.
It is very important to talk with your children about domestic abuse. If you don’t they may feel that they are to blame, confused or like they are crazy, they may think that it is not ok to talk about violence or their feelings. By talking to your children you can make them feel safer, cared for and understood and help them to learn that violence is not an ok way to deal with your problems and that it is ok to talk about feelings.
Talk to children when they are ready and make sure that you have lots of time and are both feeling calm. Be patient; accept that they may not be willing or able to talk about it right away. Try another time.
Let them know that it is not ok for anybody to ever hurt somebody else.
Make sure that they realise what has happened is not their fault and there is nothing that they could have done to change or prevent it.
Let them know you will listen to them, and that you know it must have been scary for them. Let them know that they can tell you how they feel.
Talk about what your child can do to keep themselves safe if it happens again. (For example, staying in your room, going to neighbours, etc.)
Speak about your ex-partner in a general way and try to avoid name calling. Challenge their behaviour rather than the person- your child may still love the abusive parent and may find these feelings confusing.
If they find it difficult to talk you could try having a question box in which they can post questions or a journal where you can write messages to each other.
Acknowledge that it may be uncomfortable for you to talk about the abuse – saying you don’t have time may be your way of avoiding it. It might be scary for you to remember what happened- it’s scary for your children too but once you start talking it may feel less scary. Try talking with an adult you trust first.