The fall-out from domestic abuse rains down on everyone. Children and young people can get lost in the chaos as the primary victim is often the focus, especially if they need help to escape, stabilise and recover. This is why children were once known as hidden victims; living in violent or abusive households but not receiving support to survive and thrive. The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 views children impacted by domestic abuse as victims in their own right. This is a step forward, but only if a network of comprehensive services goes along with it. Parents often ask how they can help their children come to terms with their experiences. Here are some tips on how to respond to children in the weeks, months and years after domestic abuse.
Let them talk
In some households the past becomes a white elephant no one talks about. This is especially true when a parent moves on and forms a new relationship. No one wants to bring up all that bad stuff. As parents, we might avoid these conversations because we feel guilt and shame about the impact on our child, or we don’t want to face difficult questions or blame. Equally, our child might avoid the subject because we become defensive or tearful. But this means children can’t process feelings as they crop up. Trauma needs to be revisited and re-examined, sometimes for years. When children can’t talk, they may take unresolved issues into adulthood, or grow resentment and anger. Instead, we need to let our child know it’s okay to talk about the past, but only if they want to – we shouldn’t force them. We should try not to be defensive but acknowledge their trauma and let them know how sorry we are this happened. We should not take responsibility for someone else’s abuse, but we can acknowledge how difficult it was for them, and how we wish we could have shielded them.
Shield them from further events
Leaving an abusive relationship is not always the end of the problem. We might continue to be harassed, stalked and abused, and this is a particularly risky time for victims. Our child has likely witnessed and overheard lots of things in the past, but now we can work towards shielding them from future upset. This isn’t always possible, but we can try. We can only discuss the situation if they are not around; we can make calls to police or professionals when they are at school or nursery. We can avoid updating them on new unwanted contact unless it’s for their own safety. In the same way, we should avoid entering into shouting matches on the phone with our ex. It’s easy to fall into the habit of talking openly with friends and family, but not when our children are within earshot. They have dealt with enough, and if we can protect them from further exposure we should try to do that.
Avoid criticism of abusive parent
This is a hard one, but constantly telling a child how terrible, evil and cruel their other parent is can be extremely damaging, even when it’s true. Our parents are part of us, and children usually feel love and divided loyalty to them, even when they behave badly. We feel connected and responsible for family, so a barrage of criticism against a parent can damage our self-esteem. If you need to sound off, and who can blame you, do it when your child is not around. Your anger might be justified but your child does not need to hear it. They will come to their own conclusions over time. Additionally, never compare. The worst thing we can say to a child is that they are just like their abusive Dad/Mum.
Avoid relying on child for emotional support
After an abusive relationship we can be in desperate need of support, comfort and validation. It’s easy to fall into the trap of using children, especially older children, as our companions or friends, shoulders to cry on, or for emotional support. This is a lot for a child to cope with, especially when they are recovering themselves. Domestic abuse takes a toll on our parenting abilities, so it’s important to take back control. We should be supporting our children to recover and not the other way around.
Don’t make them worry
After a relationship split, children will often be reeling from the changed circumstances for some time. Their little bubble has burst and life suddenly looks uncertain. They need to move forward without lying awake at night worrying about us, and whether we are safe and happy. There is nothing more destructive to a child than the fear a parent might not be able to cope, or even worse, take their own life. It’s normal to have mental health struggles after abuse, it’s one of the most stressful things a human can experience, but we should try and shield children as much as possible from our own trauma. In particular, we should not talk about harming ourselves or wanting to die in front of them. Children take things literally. Even flippant remarks can have an impact.
Give your time
It’s likely that in the past your time was monopolized by your abuser. Now you have left that situation, you can help you child giving them your full attention. If you don’t feel up to complex activities like craft or baking, or can’t afford to take them out, you could start by simply being present with them. Chill on their bed for a few minutes when you take in the laundry, ask them what they are watching or reading, ask for their opinion, or ask about their day. Really focus on what they are saying; stay with them. Time and attention are the most precious things we can give children.
Try not to over compensate
It perfectly natural to try and over compensate, especially when our past decisions have resulted in harm to our child. But it’s we get back into the saddle of parenting. We might want to make allowances for children who have experienced trauma, but ignoring poor behaviour, or allowing them too much leeway or freedom, will probably backfire in the end. The best way we can help our child is to parent to the best of our ability, have clear boundaries and take responsibility as their parent. This might be hard to begin with, especially if our child is emotionally scarred, or angry and resentful. Keep persevering, it pays off in the end.
Fight for them
We might need to fight to get our children what they need. There may be battles with schools, mental health services, or in the family court. Although you might not recognise it yet, you are a warrior. You are a survivor. You probably had to fight every day just to survive. Now it’s time to fight for your child. Keep advocating for them, keep fighting their corner until they get their needs met.
None of the suggestions above are necessarily easy, especially when we are struggling to heal ourselves, but when parents ask, how can I help my child, there are no quick and easy fixes. The best way to help them is to be the best parent you can be. Although there’s no rule book, there are loads of books and online content to support and encourage us as parents. It’s the most important job we’ll ever have, and our efforts will ripple into the futures of not only our children, but our grandchildren and beyond. With luck, the cycle stops with us.
National Training Manager, NCDV