How to Help Children Who Have Witnessed Domestic Violence
Do not be afraid to talk about what has happened in their family. Do allow the child to bring up this topic as he or she wishes and be prepared to listen without avoiding or overreacting to the content shared. If a child senses that his/her caretakers or other professional are upset or nervous around this topic, they will avoid speaking of it. While it is not necessary to probe or bring up these issues regularly, by letting the child know you are interested in and available to talk about these tings that are important to them, you communicate a willingness to hear about their experience. What is it you need to be available to this child? Obtaining support for yourself will help you be present to support the child.
Maintain a consistent and predictable structure and schedule. Many women and children have shared that living with domestic violence and the unpredictability and tension produced in such an environment increases anxiety. While many will say that relaxing expectations is comforting, we have found that consistent structure and a routine that a child can depend on helps to decrease overall levels of anxiety. Giving children information about what will be happening in their lives during each day and as new things come up is also important. Should their schedule require changes or if something new is coming up, give the child notice and allow him/her to prepare.
Be aware of your physical boundaries. For children who have been physically and or sexually abused it is important not only to honor their need for control over their bodies and personal space, but also to encourage and model appropriate boundaries. Let the child initiate contact and return that which they offer in kind.
Be clear with the child/ren about your expectations for appropriate behavior. It is important for children to know exactly what you expect of them and that these expectations are consistent. Utilize positive reinforcement. When rules are broken, employ reasoning and follow through with natural and logical consequences in order that children see the cause and effect relationship and can learn to take responsibility for their actions and the outcomes of the choices they make.
Talk to them! Children are incredibly observant and have a right to information abut what is happening in their lives. If information is withheld, often children will fill in the blanks with speculation with may increase anxiety. At the same time, it is imperative that information shared is age appropriate. It is okay to admit that you do not have all the answers! This honesty will serve to increase the level of trust the child has in you.
Observe themes of play. Often people who have experienced trauma have a need to reenact the event and/or describe it over and over. Children speak through the symbolic language of play and behavior making it important to educate yourself as to what they are communicating through their actions. As with any person working things out, behaviors and themes in play may disappear or lessen for a time only to come back later. This is normal, especially as new stages of development are entered; it does not necessarily signify regression. Often it is helpful to record these patterns to reflect back on and to share with service providers working with the child.
Protect the child. Be aware of play, games, movies, or situations that appear to re-traumatize the child. Do not hesitate to stop or remove them from such situations.
Offer the child choices. Giving the child choices gives them a sense of control over their lives. We have found that children who have come from a home environment which is/was unpredictable and unsafe benefit from opportunities to dictate what happens in their lives. Many of the symptomatic behaviors presented by traumatized children are connected to feelings of disempowerment.
Ask for help. Be aware of resources within the family and community to help you help the child. Certainly the demands made of women who have been battered in terms of emotional and physical energy are great as they themselves heal. Creating connections with supportive systems can be helpful to both mothers and their children.
From Principles of Working with Traumatized Children, Bruce Perry M.D., Ph.D. Reprinted from Eastside Domestic Violence Program, Bellevue, Wasington.