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This piece was originally published in 2015. It was updated in 2023.
It’s a complicated situation: teaching your children violence isn't the answer while they simultaneously witness domestic abuse by a parent. This mixed message can lead to confusion in children of any age, but especially for those who are younger and look to their parents as an example of how to be an adult.
We know that a child’s ACEs score, or Adverse Childhood Experiences score, can impact their lifetime mental and physical health, as well as life expectency. The more types of trauma they experience before the age of 18, the more at risk they are for problems like dropping out of school, depression, heart disease, cancer, stroke, obesity, alcoholism, unemployment, abusive intimate partners or becoming abusive themselves.
So how do parents and caregivers start to reverse the effects of what their children have lived through? Not surprisingly, it starts with setting the record straight.
Tell Kids the Truth About Domestic Violence
“A common factor for kids of all ages is that they learn from what they see. What we tell them is only relevant if it matches up with what their experiences tell them,” says Judi Nelson, former coordinator of education and outreach at the Sojourner Project. “If kids are experiencing violence, they know the downsides—it scares, hurts and alienates others … and the stronger person gets what they want.”
Many parents and even some professionals believe a child is too young to truly grasp what’s going on, or the protective parent believes they’re shielding the child from the truth of violence. Yet advocates argue that children are far more perceptive than we may realize. Even during infant and toddler years, these babies can feel the fear and the stress caused by an abuser.
“Young children are more aware than we, as adults, usually think they are. However, that doesn’t mean they understand what’s going on,” says Betsy McAlister Groves, founding director of the Child Witness to Violence Project at Boston Medical Center in “8 Ways to Talk to Kids Exposed to Domestic Violence.”
It doesn’t benefit children to lie to them and say everything is OK. This can normalize the violence and abuse that they’ve witnessed. Depending on the age and developmental stage of the child, explaining to them that what happened wasn’t acceptable and was wrong prevents gaslighting them into a false sense of security. Plus, having children see that violence can result in real-life consequences is important.
“When kids see consequences for abusive behavior or violence against others, they learn that violence is bad and…. there are practical considerations,” explains Nelson. “For example, dad getting arrested and ordered to stay away from the family after attacking mom or the kids is a highly teachable moment. It could easily deteriorate into feelings of sympathy for poor dad. But [it] can be explained to children that this is what happens when you act violently. Violence is a choice, and that choice is solely the abuser’s. No one else caused it, controlled it or deserved it.”
No matter what occurred in the past, even if the survivor/protective parent had responded with violence toward the abuser, kids need to see that nonviolence is the correct family response. Nelson suggests phrasing it like this: “How we respond to violence is a value of our family. We don’t put our hands on each other in this family. We treat each other with kindness and respect.” And then, she says, “Treat your children that way, allowing them to create their own boundaries and coping skills, and honoring those.”
Children can emulate an abuser. Parents may feel disheartened to hear an abuser’s tone or words come out of a child’s mouth or see them hit or shove other children out of anger. But this isn’t necessarily cause for panic as these responses can be unlearned. Children will look to both parents as models for how to act, and protective parents need to remember to try and stay calm regardless of how a child chooses to display their emotions. Read “Keeping Your Cool as a First-Time Single Parent” for more tips.
Break the Cycle of Intimate Partner Abuse
All children who are exposed to domestic violence run a higher risk of repeating that cycle, either by becoming abusive to a future partner or being the victim of abuse. Protective parents can feel guilty about passing down this risk to their children, but there are ways to mitigate it. It starts with modeling nonviolence, no matter what they’ve seen in the past. And it continues by talking to children about healthy relationships and what those look like. They’ve likely already seen an example of an unhealthy relationship play out, but do they know the markers of a safe and consensual relationship?
It starts by talking boundaries—in a healthy relationship, whether with a friend, family member or partner, boundaries are respected. These boundaries can be emotional (“I don’t want to share those details with you right now”), physical (“I need a little space so I’m going to spend some time alone in my room”) or sexual (“I don’t feel comfortable giving you a hug yet”). A safe partner respects boundaries and doesn’t push someone to do something they’re uncomfortable with. You can start having the talk about boundaries with children as young as three.
If your child is a teenager, you may want to consider reading one of these young adult novels together which discuss fictional dating or domestic violence scenarios. Spend time talking about how your kid(s) feel about the relationships portrayed. It can be a more easy-going way to start that discussion.
But What if You Stay?
For many reasons, a survivor/protective parent may be trapped with an abuser, unable to get herself and her children to safety. It may be an issue of finances, threats of additional danger, lack of resources and support, a disability or something else. Children may continue to grow up witnessing violence. On that, Nelson says this: “I don’t want to imply that they can’t be good mothers or have strong relationships with their children. But they will have [additional] challenges.
“Modeling is important. So is the community’s response to violence. Kids are very much affected by the social orb outside of the family. To be treated with respect and kindness by other adults in their lives, to have clear messages in schools that violence is not tolerated, that the community provides services and support to those in domestic violence situations. These are powerful elements in teaching children that violence is wrong, that no one deserves abuse and that there is safety and understanding available in their community.”
If possible, getting children support outside of the home can help immensely. You could consider a trained domestic violence therapist—there are those who won’t disclose that they’re seeing children for domestic violence, helping to keep their appointments a secret from abusers. Support can also come in the form of a school counselor, a trusted family member who can take the children out of the abuser’s environment on a regular basis or a supportive summer camp for kids, like Camp Hope America. Having positive role models in a child’s life that can offset what the abusive parent has shown will help shape a child’s greater understanding of what is acceptable behavior by adults.
Only survivors know when it’s safest to leave an abusive partner. Whether or not you’re ready to go, consider speaking to a trained domestic violence advocate about safety planning—setting up a plan of action for what to do the next time violence occurs. Read, “Safety Planning With Your Kids” to learn how to involve children in your safety plan.
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