Here is some information about working with children who have witnessed domestic violence. Remember that it is the perpetrator’s choice to expose their children to violence. Do not blame the mother for the violence that is being perpetrated against her. Hold the perpetrator responsible for his actions.
By Tracy Burt, Children’s Program Coordinator YWCA
Children’s developmental capacities influence how they create meaning about the world around them. Recent research has shown that most children who live in homes with domestic violence are aware of the violence, even when their parents believe they are not aware. Rather than avoiding a dialogue with children about domestic violence, we can choose to help them understand difficult events in their lives. We owe it to them to give them honest answers that respect their developmental capacities. In general, children will usually ask for what they need to know. When answering questions about the criminal consequences of domestic violence, young children will benefit from the following guidelines:
- Connect the batterer’s absence to children’s concrete experiences and framework of understanding. For example: “Jail is like a time-out for adults.” Children younger than four will be unable to think abstractly and thus need such concrete references.
- Differentiate consequences for adults from consequences for children. “When adults make big (or serious) mistakes, they have to be in jail. Children are still learning and have more chances.”
- Tell them that when one person hurts other people, they have to be separated in order to keep people safe. Everyone, child and adult, has the right to a safe body.
- Keep it simple. Use short sentences and avoid elaborating. Try to answer only the question asked. Wait for the child to ask you for more information.
- If appropriate and depending on your comfort level with the truthfulness of this statement, tell them that jail is supposed to be a place where adults can learn how to stop hurting other people. If the domestic violence situation has been particularly lethal, and future contact with the batterer will be avoided at all costs, also tell the child that the batterer has hurt his or her partner so much that he will not be allowed to see her again.
- The child may still love and miss the incarcerated parent. It is important to keep remarks about the incarcerated parent focused on the behavior that precipitated the incarceration. It may be difficult for children to hear hateful remarks about the missing parent when what the child needs to hear is an explanation of what incarceration means to the family.
- If the child is the family member who made the 911 call for help, the child needs to be validated for making the right and safe choice. The child also needs to know that the incarceration is not the child’s fault, rather the responsible party is the parent who jeopardized family safety.
When we answer children’s difficult questions honestly and appropriately we respect their right to know the truth and we also validate their reality. Without this validation they will integrate trauma into their worldview in potentially detrimental ways.