When you are affected by domestic violence it is normal to try to protect your children from what is happening, and hope they don’t notice. Unfortunately, children who grow up in households affected by domestic violence are most probably aware of what is going on. There are many ways in which children are aware of abuse, and it is impossible to hide everything from them.
Children are dependent on the adults and when their home is no longer a safe place, they will feel very conflicted. They may be angry and afraid; they may feel as if this is their fault. There are many factors that could affect how a child reacts to the presence of abuse in their home, which creates a variety of behavioural and social problems. These could include, but are not limited to, anxiety and depression, stomach pains or other physical symptoms, nightmares and flashbacks, problems at school or with friends or aggressive and anti-social behaviour.
The difficult truth is that in many instances when a parent is being abused, a child will be too. Not all perpetrators of domestic abuse will hurt children, but a significant number will. It is important to listen to your children when they try to talk to you about this. Make it clear that it is not their fault; tell them that they are being very brave. Try to remain calm when talking to your child, what you hear may be shocking and upsetting, but try to reassure your child and make it clear that this is not their fault.
It is tempting to try to hide behind silence, and deny that there is something wrong. Most children appreciate being able to talk about what is happening. Talk to your children, and listen to them. It may help children to write down what they are feeling, or draw pictures.
It may also be tempting to reassure your child, and promise that everything will be alright, but although this is hard, do not make promises you cannot keep. This is a very difficult time for you and your child, but lying, or making promises you cannot keep, will reduce your child’s trust in you later.
It is important to note that despite popular belief, expressing anger aggressively is a learnt behavior and not inherited. Living in an abusive household will create a negative learning environment where they can also learn how to express their anger i.e by shouting insults or hitting. Most importantly, it’s imperative to understand that even if you try your best effort to hide it from your children, just because a child does not witness a beating or argument does not mean it doesn’t have an effect. Children are more aware of human interactions than we give them credit for. Witnessing abuse has severe negative effects on children.
MOVING TO A SAFE HOME
Keep your child informed as much as possible and try to let him/her know of any plans to move. There might be the case that for practical reasons it is not be possible to inform your child of a move in advance (and the safety of you and your child must come first) but otherwise do so. Explain to them they are going somewhere safe, and let them know that they might not see pets or friends again. Moving away will help to protect your child and give them a new start.
IF A CHILD BECOMES AGGRESSIVE
It might happen that a child becomes aggressive; it is not uncommon for a mother to be abused by her son. This is very difficult, but if aggressive behaviour persists it is important to protect yourself and any other family members that may be affected. Remember that this is not your fault and that the safety of you and the rest of your family is the most important. Abuse and aggression are not acceptable, no matter where they come from and it is necessary to seek help.
Department of Health (2002) ‘Women’s Mental Health: Into the Mainstream: Strategic development of mental health care for women’ (London: DH).
Mullender, A. and Morley, R. ‘Children living with domestic violence’ (London: Whiting and Birch).
Royal College of Psychiatrists (2004) ‘Mental health and growing up, 3rd edition: Domestic violence: Its effects on children
Parent Line Plus
http://www.womensaid.org.uk/”>Domestic Violence Survivors Handbook