Children who are exposed to domestic violence may mimic the behavior they’ve seen and act abusively toward a parent, siblings, classmates, or others. They may use abusive or degrading language or lash out in a physical way, hitting you or siblings, kicking a family pet or punching the wall. They may get frustrated easily or “fly off the handle” when something seemingly minor occurs. As a parent, you might feel frustrated, embarrassed, angry or even sad when your child does this.
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But remember that your child’s actions are their way of coping with trauma. And what the Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACE study shows is that these actions above have happened to your child, they’re not something wrong with him or her.
“When kids act out, they’re doing it for a reason,” says Susan Bernstein, a Connecticut-based social worker and marriage and family therapist with expertise in domestic violence. “No one wakes up and wants to be in a fight. No one wants to be angry, aggressive, or scared. They are in a hyper-aroused state. They are so overwhelmed by circumstances.”
Do you know your child’s ACE score? Adverse childhood experiences can have lifelong health effects, and it’s important to intervene as soon as possible.
And to help your child redirect the above behaviors, try to start from a place of compassion and connection. “You can’t take what the child is doing personally. But you can say, ‘I like you as a person, but I don’t like this behavior’,” Bernstein says.
What Feelings Is Your Child Experiencing?
Your child may be mimicking abuse as a way to cope with one or more of these feelings:
Separation anxiety. Young kids may be afraid to be apart from their parents. Older kids may worry about being away from home—they may fear that a parent might be abusive when they are at school.
Guilt. Older kids may feel guilty that they couldn’t do anything to stop the abuse, especially if they are physically bigger than the abuser.
Denial. Kids see things concretely—abstract thinking develops over time. So kids who don’t see the abuse firsthand may try to believe that it’s not happening.
Mixed emotions. Abusers are often nice to some or all of their children. “That’s part of the manipulation of the abuser—to have allies throughout the household,” Bernstein says. “Kids can love and hate the same person at the same time. They have to understand their feelings.”
Here’s how a child might think: “If I’m on Dad’s good side I don’t get hit. So, it must be that Mom doesn’t know how to be nice.”
Apathy. Acting out isn’t always aggressive. It can also take the form of apathy or lack of connection. “They can detach from the overwhelm,” Bernstein says.
Anger. Older kids can be angry at the protective parent for not leaving an abuser sooner. Children don’t always understand the psychological tactics abusers use to trap a survivor, or that without money or support, the parent may have had no place else to go.
“Let kids know it’s okay to be angry at their life situation,” Bernstein says. But they can’t turn that anger toward other people.
It’s Important to Help Children Cope
Abuse can be transgenerational, so it’s critical to intervene and stop the cycle.
“Understand that a child acting out and mimicking abusive behavior is in a chaotic state,” Bernstein says. “They are in trauma. They are trying to get through the day and not get hurt or see someone else get hurt.” Children need to understand that living with trauma can harm them now and in the future.
“Kids who act out are suffering. It’s the job of parents and caretakers to alleviate the suffering,” Bernstein says.
Identify Appropriate Behaviors
In addition to helping children deal with trauma, spend time teaching them what behaviors are appropriate and inappropriate. “It’s all about respect—respecting yourself, respecting others, respecting property, and respecting feelings,” Bernstein says.
Set rules that are consistent and thoughtful for everyone in the household:
- Kids at any age can learn that name-calling is wrong, from poopiehead to a**hole.
- Throwing food is unacceptable, and the child should clean it up.
- Only gentle or kind touch is allowed.
- Consent is required to touch anyone’s body, especially between adults and children. (Read more about that in “Turns Out, 3 Isn’t Too Early to Talk Boundaries.”)
Help kids feel safe and nurtured—just because a child acted out doesn’t mean they don’t get a hug. After living through abuse, children may need extra nurturing.
Help Children Embrace Ways to Heal
Language is a powerful tool for healing. Children need to find ways to talk about how they feel. “The gift of language gives them the best chance to get better,” Bernstein says. They can learn the words that describe their emotions—frustration, anger, resentment, fear, or numbness.
Kids who believe that abusive behavior is their fault may feel ashamed. Finding the language to explain their feelings can help them let go of the shame.
Written language can help, too. Journaling can help kids heal, and even young children can try art, crafting, or expressive therapies.
When kids have complicated relationships with their parents it can help to connect them with an aunt, uncle, other family member, or family friend who can help nurture them.
By safely exploring their emotions, kids can identify circumstances that might become overwhelming. Kids can also learn to tune into the body sensations that accompany emotions and reframe those emotions before they trigger an outburst.
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Healing takes years—as children grow and develop, they will understand more complicated life situations and social norms. “They’ll understand what it’s like to love someone you don’t like, or why mom didn’t just leave,” Bernstein says.
Even if a child doesn’t want to confront these issues now, they may be ready to address them when they are older, and by helping your child now you’ll have put the groundwork in place.
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