Children, even young ones, are more aware than you think. Even if you do your best to shield them from violence and your partner never abuses you in front of the kids, they know there’s turmoil in the home.
“There is a natural tendency to minimize the fact that children are affected by domestic violence,” says Betsy McAlister Groves, founding director of the Child Witness to Violence Project at Boston Medical Center. “Young children are more aware than we, as adults, usually think they are. However, that doesn’t mean they understand what’s going on.”
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Your first consideration, of course, should be safety. If you’re able to leave safely with your children, that’s the best option to protect yourself and them. If leaving isn’t an option right now, reassure your children you have their safety in mind. That means safety planning with older children and providing stability for younger ones. (See our new video, “I’m Ready to Leave My Abuser, Now What?” for more tips on safety planning.)
“Safety and stability are the first steps toward helping children, but we also understand that, for a variety of reasons, families do stay together,” Groves says. “That’s why it’s critical to safety plan. Tell your children, ‘If there’s fighting and you don’t feel safe, go to the neighbor’s house—or whatever you want the plan to be. I think that’s a powerful way that a parent can say ‘I’m protecting you.’”
For children of all ages, but especially the younger ones, try to provide as much stability as possible. Stick to daily routines and bedtimes whenever possible.
“If a young child feels that there’s some predictability in his world, that helps a lot,” Groves says. “Also, try to find a way to spend extra time with the child, and talk to the child in a soothing tone. These things, in a non-verbal way, really help stabilize children.”
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Read “Safety Planning With Your Kids” for tips.
When It’s Time to Talk
Talking about abuse is never comfortable, and Groves says it can be particularly difficult to discuss the topic with your children. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say anything.
“Because it’s such a difficult topic to bring up, oftentimes it’s simply avoided,” she says. “Then you’ve got an elephant-in-the-room problem, and it can really create a kind of wedge between the child and parent. That’s when we start to see behavioral issues.”
Groves says behavioral issues are often children trying to express themselves without having the opportunity or know-how to do so verbally. Instead, they act out via tantrums, defiance and aggressive behavior.
Establishing open communication and being available to listen and answer questions is the best way to help your children deal with what’s going on. Here are eight tips from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network for discussing domestic violence with kids.
- Take the lead. Don’t wait for children to come to you; they’re likely scared and uncomfortable to bring the topic up, too.
- Start with a message of support. Try something like, “I care about you and I will listen to you.”
- Find out what they know. Ask your children what they’ve seen or what they understand about what’s happening at home.
- Show support. Acknowledge children’s feelings and their versions of events, which may not line up with what actually happened.
- Tell them it’s not their fault. Children are naturally self-centered and are likely to think they’re the reason for the violence. Assure them they are not.
- Tell them violence is not OK. It may feel hypocritical to say, but it’s still an important message to get across.
- Try to stay calm. Speaking confidently conveys a sense of security. If your children ask something you’re not comfortable answering right then, tell them it’s an important question and you need some time to think before you can answer. Most importantly, make sure you do get back to them.
- Don’t put any burden on them. Rely on other adults for support and avoid placing stress or worry on your children by discussing relationship or custody issues with them.
It’s OK to Ask for Help
If you’re still uncomfortable talking to your children about domestic violence, don’t be too hard on yourself.
“I would never want anyone to think that a parent should automatically know what to say,” Groves says. “This is why I think the role of external supports, whether it’s an advocate, a neighbor, a friend, a therapist—someone who can really help the non-abusing parent think through what they want to say to the child—are so important.”
Groves also advocates for getting professional help from a child therapist anytime you are concerned about your child’s mental and emotional well-being.
“If your child’s behaviors are significantly interfering with their ability to function at school or at home, if there’s aggression that feels unsafe or uncontainable, if an older child gives any hint of self-harm—these are clear indications that the child needs outside help,” she says. “Parents should not hesitate to seek support if they are worried about their child.”
For more on how you can help your children cope, read “18 Ways to Support Children Who Witness Domestic Violence.”
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