Author Glennon Melton once said she realized at a certain point that she had gotten the job description wrong for parenting. A parent’s role, she says, is not to protect children from fire, but rather to lead them through it and teach them that they’re fireproof.
For survivor parents who have endured domestic abuse, and whose children have been witness to it or a victim of it, the guilt that follows can sometimes feel nearly soul-crushing. Will the kids be all right? Will they ever feel safe again? Will they ever be able to trust someone new?
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After trauma, a parent might find themselves coddling (more on that later, but it’s OK), spoiling (there’s a right way to do so) or helicoptering around their child, determined to protect them from ever feeling fear again. But the truth is, we can’t protect our kids from enduring hardship. Life will consistently challenge them. They will encounter mean people again. They will feel fear.
Our job, as parents, is to do as Melton advises: teach our kids that they’ve got this, and then lead them through. Here are five things to try that can help instill bravery.
1. Reinforce: What Happened Before Was Not Your Fault
To teach kids how to be brave, we must first teach them to understand their fears. And for children of domestic violence, that means explaining to them that what happened at home was not about them.
“It's important to remember that children are very egocentric, meaning they think everything wrong revolves around them or they are responsible for what happened,” says Atlanta-based educator and domestic violence support group leader Barbara Harvey. “So the first thing any parent needs to do is really talk to their children about what happened and how it's not their fault.”
Harvey says that talking openly and honestly is important because shrouding domestic violence in secrecy only hinders the healing process. Here are six ways to explain violence to kids.
2. Love: Extra Attention, Coddling is A-OK
Children can develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after living through or witnessing abuse. Symptoms may include problems with sleep or concentration, not wanting to separate from the parent, or regressing in their behavior (wetting the bed, not wanting to talk, doing poorly in school). However, it’s important to remember that children respond to abuse in many different ways. Even if a child is outwardly doing well, it doesn’t mean he or she isn’t experiencing PTSD from the abuse. These children still need a chance to talk about the impact of witnessing violence. You can start a conversation with something like, "We're safe now, but we had some scary times before. Do you want to talk about it with me?"
Though a trained therapist should diagnose and treat PTSD, a parent or caregiver can supplement with more closeness with the child—hugs, cuddles, reassurances, talking, tucking into bed, or just attentive one-on-one time.
3. Ask: And Then Really Listen
Harvey says asking kids about what they’re feeling and really listening to their responses can be the number one thing parents and caregivers can do to help kids process trauma. “Help children express their feelings by giving them feeling words,” she says. Are they worried, uncomfortable, overwhelmed, lonely? “Also, as you’re listening, try not to say they shouldn’t feel that way. Acknowledge their feelings and say, ‘I understand you feel that way. How do you want to feel about it now?’”
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4. Model: Your Emotions Influence Theirs
The next step in nurturing a confident and brave new outlook on life is to examine how you, the parent or caregiver, deal with challenges. Your response will strongly influence how your child reacts to similar situations.
Bravery doesn’t mean not being afraid. It means you go forward in life even though you are afraid. On that note, you can model this idea in new situations that might be scary. Anxious about talking to a stranger? Show your child it’s not scary to ask a store employee for help finding something, or wish someone on the street “Good morning.” Sign up for a class you and your child can take together, like making a craft or learning how to dance. Show them it can be fun to step outside your comfort zone.
And, instead of helping children avoid challenges, reassure them that they will be OK as you help navigate them through something tough. “I know it’s scary, but you’ve got this,” you might say on their first day of school.
Or, highlight another time they were brave: “I remember when you were afraid to go on that roller coaster, but you did it and then you loved it. Sometimes, things we think are scary at first turn out to be really fun once we get used to them.”
5. Show: Find Examples of Bravery and Courage
This list of 40 children’s books that teach bravery is a good place to start for littles (to save money, see if your public library carries any or can recommend any others). Goodreads.com has a list of young adult novels that talk about courage for your older kids. PBSKids has cartoons available for free including this one with Daniel Tiger that you can watch online with your kiddos and talk about how they demonstrate bravery.
And as you watch movies or TV shows with your child, make sure to point out when a character does something courageous, stands up to his or her fears, or makes the choice not to give up in a daunting situation.
Something To Think About
Are you a parent currently enduring an abusive partner? Children who are routinely exposed to severe stress, such as domestic violence, can face negative long-term effects on the brain. Chaotic, threatening and unpredictable situations that excessively activate a child’s “flight or fight” response can make it difficult for that child to access basic skills like planning, focusing, adjusting and resisting impulsive behaviors, according to findings from a Harvard University study on children’s brain development. In other words, constant stress can deplete the brain of the energy it needs for essential development.
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