Children who are exposed to domestic violence can have a wide range of reactions. Even just being around any type of violence or abuse one time can leave an affect. The initial reactions of a child who has witnessed abuse is usually fear, confusion, and (depending on the age) self-blame. Children process experiences differently than adults, and often differently than how we would expect them to. It’s important to talk with your child about things that they might not fully understand, and to reassure them that they are not to blame for anyone else’s actions.
Other reactions that your child might exhibit can include:
- Blaming others (for the abuse, or their own actions)
- Acting out (physically, verbally)
- Having trouble sleeping
- Having trouble at school with peers or academics
- Complaining of physical ailments/health issues (stomachaches, headaches, etc.)
- Avoiding people or activities
These are just a few ways that stress can be acted on. If your child begins acting differently than normal, that may be their way of processing what they have experienced.
Knowing how to start the conversation with your child about domestic abuse can be the hardest part. It’s important to know that you should take the lead in initiating the conversation- most likely, they are too scared or unsure to bring it up themselves. If you are not sure how you want to phrase what you should say, find someone you trust and talk with them about planning it out. Here are a few steps you can take in order to have a constructive conversation with your child:
- Let them know that you care about them, and want to listen and support them.
- Ask open-ended questions about what your child thinks happened, and how they felt about it.
- Listen to what they say without interrupting or judging. You can help them identify some things that they might be feeling. (For example, “I can understand why this made you angry.”)
- Tell them that what happened is not their fault.
- Remind them that violence and abuse is not okay. Talk to them in a way that is appropriate for their age (for instance, saying “Sometimes people do bad things” is great for a young child, but a teenager will probably be expecting a more in-depth explanation).
- Praise their efforts to communicate their thoughts and feelings. (For example, “I’m glad you are talking with me about this.”)
- Be patient if your child has a hard time understanding, or doesn’t want to talk. You can have other conversations- just let them know that you care and are supporting them.
- Stay calm, and ask for help if you ever need it. There are a lot of questions that one person may not have all the answers to.
A great way to encourage confidence in children is to talk through some things that they can do whenever they feel unsafe, anxious, or scared. There are lots of different types of safety plans, which can include going to a different place (like their room, or the neighbor’s house, etc.), calling someone you both can trust and feel comfortable talking to, participating in an activity like journaling or a sport, etc. Here are some things you can plan out together with your child:
- Something they can do whenever they are reminded of violent or abusive experiences- “triggers” (loud noises, raised voices, or actions correlated to certain events). This can be listening to music, reading, or taking a walk.
- Enrolling your child in a mentoring or out-of-school program where they feel safe, if they are comfortable with it.
- Talk with them about where they want to do activities like homework, or what they want to read or participate in. Let them make decisions.
- Encourage your child to talk to people that they feel comfortable with. They might choose to confide in close friends, or a trusted teacher, coach, or counselor.
Make sure that your child knows that they can trust you with their thoughts and feelings. Even if they want to have the more in-depth discussions with other people, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to talk about it ever again with you. Let them take their time in processing what they’ve experienced, and let them know that you will be there for them when they are ready.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Peace at Home can answer any of your questions, and direct you to local resources that can assist you as well.
You can find more specific information on talking with your child based on their age here.