While many behaviors signal a child in distress, no behavior in and of itself is diagnostic of a child exposed to Intimate Partner Violence (IPV). Some children have difficulty concentrating and under-achieve academically, while others flourish in the safety of the classroom. Some evidence of post-traumatic symptoms include traumatic arousal (difficulty sitting still or problems sleeping), numbness, intrusive memories and a reduced ability to cope with stress. Some children have mostly internalizing behaviors such as low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and social withdrawal, while other show externalizing behaviors including aggression, delinquency, substance abuse and tantrums. Children in homes with IPV are hospitalized more than other children and are more likely to suffer from physical symptoms such as colds, bed-wetting and sore throats. Frequent visits to the school nurse may be a sign that a child has been exposed to IPV or other trauma.
Adults should be especially concerned if you see a child who acts out IPV in imaginary play, who is aggressive or overly submissive with their peers, or a child who shows an exaggerated startle response to loud noises or voices. The best way to determine if a child has been exposed to IPV is to ask directly. Depending on the child’s age and how guarded they are, children might respond with important information to a general prompt such as:
- Tell me about your family.
- Tell me how your mom is doing.
- Tell me about how things are at home.
You’ll notice, these inquiries are phrased as open-ended prompts, so children will be more likely to respond with a narrative rather than a single word such as “fine.”
Inquiring about people’s families is common in cultures throughout the world, and some children will respond openly to this kind of prompt. However, many children have been told not to discuss family matters with outsiders. If you have a reason to suspect that IPV occurs in a child’s home, or if you see a child who is unusually aggressive, passive or sad, you can ask direct questions. For instance:
- Tell me about what worries you.
- Tell me about what scares you.
- Who fights with whom in your home? What usually happens?
- Who is the boss in your family? How do you know?
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In many but not all states, exposing a child to domestic violence is considered a form of child abuse or neglect, and requires reporting to child protective services (CPS) or the police. People in those states who are mandated reporters of child abuse are therefore required by law to report children who they suspect or know are exposed to IPV. People who work in states that do not require the reporting of children exposed to IPV may still do so if they believe the exposure is potentially dangerous or traumatizing for the child. Whether CPS will intervene for exposure to domestic violence without other forms of child abuse depends on local practices and the perceived level of risk to the child.
Many people equate reporting a family to child protective services with forcing a child into foster care, but that is always a last resort. More commonly, CPS will do one of the following instead: 1) screen out the report; 2) investigate and decide a child is no longer at risk, sometimes providing a family with voluntary services; or 3) provide ongoing services to a family including regular social work visits. Phrased another way, out of 4.1 million referrals to CPS in 2016 alleging 7.4 million maltreated children, fewer than 204,000, or 2.8 percent, ended up in foster care. More than 1.3 million children and their families received some kind of service as a result of the reports, even if no abuse was confirmed. This is a lot of services reaching many people through those reports, including psychotherapy, medical attention, access to subsidized childcare or housing, help with an abusive spouse and parenting classes.
Children who are exposed to IPV are also more likely to be abused themselves than other children. Therefore, making that call to CPS about suspected IPV may bring to light other problems that need intervention. As much as one may hate to make that call, it is far worse to receive a call from a fatality investigation team and know that we failed to intervene when we could have saved a life.
The following tips are designed to boost the resilience and recovery of children exposed to IPV. That is, their ability to bounce back and achieve their potential after this traumatic exposure:
Support Academic Success: Collaborate with classroom teachers and school counselors to improve refugee children’s likelihood of succeeding academically. This may involve helping with class selection, accessing tutors and interpreters, and establishing regular “check-ins” with school counselors. Teachers and administrators from elementary through high school are often grateful for information about refugee families and the challenges they face.
Lower Stress at Home and School: Children exposed to IPV may be triggered by a generally loud environment, sudden loud noises, uncertainty, and interpersonal conflict. Teachers and administrators who understand this may be able to make changes to support the traumatized children in their building (see https://traumasensitiveschools.org). Additionally, we can help teachers and families understand that predictability reduces anxiety in traumatized children. A predictable sequence of activities including regular mealtimes and bedtimes allow children to relax.
Support Reading: Not only are strong reading skills a key to academic success, but many traumatized children find safe haven and behavioral models in books. Bring refugee children to the public library, help them get library cards and understand the library’s rules. Also, bring children to their schools’ library and help them bond with librarians. Teach refugee parents the importance of supporting their children’s reading in general and accessing books through libraries in particular.
Support Social Success: Help refugee children access outlets when they can excel such as sports, chess club, performing and visual arts, scouts, and others. The adults who facilitate these activities are often willing to waive the usual fee if approached by a refugee advocate. These activities enhance children’s social success, self-expression, and bonding with helpful adults. Choosing the right activities can also help traumatized children and teens with their particular areas of deficiency. For example, aggressive children learn self-control and discipline through studying martial arts, and shy children learn social skills through sports, dance, theater, chorus or other group activities.
Provide Access to Counseling: Individual, group, family or sibling group counseling can help children cope. Children can access these services in school or in the community. Children who have been exposed to IPV should have opportunities to discuss the IPV explicitly. Many children also benefit from support groups for children whose parents have recently divorced or separated (called “the banana splits” in my children’s elementary school), or more general groups where children can discuss their issues. Such groups help them establish bonds with other children as well as with the group facilitator, and can provide tremendous relief. Cognitive behavioral therapy may especially help children who are aggressive, withdrawn, or powerless.
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Many children from refugee families grow up into remarkable adults—successful in their work and personal life and contributing to society. This is also true for children who grow up in homes with IPV. Once they are safe, the children benefit from allies and from information and programs to help them overcome their trauma, and thrive.
Lisa Aronson Fontes, PhD, Senior Lecturer, University of Massachusetts and Author of Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship. This article first appeared on Bridging Refugee Youth & Children's Services.
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