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Talking to Children About Domestic Violence

Instructor: Duane Cloud

Duane has taught teacher education courses and has a Doctorate in curriculum and instruction. His doctoral dissertation is on ''The Wizard of Oz''.

Domestic violence is a delicate subject that even adults have problems with. When dealing with children living in these situations, the matter can seem impossible to approach. However, talking with children about these events is crucial to their recovery.

The Reality of Domestic Violence

In a sense, every member of the family suffers when domestic violence is present in a household. The cycle of abuse and violence can leave its mark on everyone, not just the immediate target of abuse. Domestic violence is defined as a pattern of domination exercised by one member of the family over another. This domination can be physical, emotional, or sexual in nature. The goal of this violence is to control victims and family members. Any family member may engage in domestic violence, mothers, fathers, siblings, or aunts and uncles. Domestic violence can leave physical, emotional, and psychological scars on people who have experienced it.

Children in a Violent Situation

Despite the belief of many well-meaning parents that the children don't know what is going on, this isn't always accurate. Children pick up cues from their parents and caretakers as well as their own sensory experience. No matter how hidden the violence in a home, it is likely that children in that environment know about it. One of the major factors in determining a child's response to domestic violence is their age.

Younger children exposed to domestic violence in the home often display symptoms of unease and discomfort. Young children may have difficulty sleeping or display hyper-vigilance, which is an overdeveloped sense of potentially harmful situations in their environment. A hyper-vigilant child will often be sensitive to disturbances in the home around them. Slightly older children may display aggression or emotional distance in their dealings with others. Teenagers may engage in risky behaviors like substance abuse or engage in violent or abusive dating relationships. Often these behaviors are the first sign that all is not well with the child in question.

Have an Honest Conversation

The best person to speak with a child about domestic violence around the home is a trained mental health or abuse counselor. However, it is much more likely that the first person to encounter a child that may be in trouble is some other member of the community. Family members, teachers, and coaches are often the first people to notice problems in a child's behavior. Rather than simply refer a child to a stranger to discuss their home life, it's often better that someone who knows the child be able to start the conversation.

The first thing to bear in mind when talking to a child about domestic violence is that it is important the conversation happen. It may be comforting to believe that the child can thrive in spite of having experienced or witnessed violence in his or her home. However, the best policy for dealing with children living with domestic violence is to sit down and talk.

The conversation should be honest and discuss things openly, rather than leaving things out. Now, if the child doesn't want to have some parts of the conversation, that's a separate issue. One should encourage the child to talk, but shouldn't force the communication. However, if the conversation takes place, it should be truthful. Don't insult the child's intelligence by telling them that the abuse is anything other than what it is. Children lack experience of the world, but they are not stupid and can pick up cues from adults better than most adults would expect.

A moment ago, we discussed honesty as the best policy, but what if the child is too young, or is developmentally challenged? There are ways to be truthful without straying into territory the child may find confusing. A complete discussion of the sexual abuse of a toddler's sister is probably too much information for the toddler to handle. In this situation, one can discuss bodily boundaries, what kind of touching is not okay, and that the abuser is hurting the sister. This can be done without going into great detail. In some cases, it depends very much on who is having the conversation with the child. A parent should understand the child well-enough that they know what kind of information to discuss with the child and what to avoid. A teacher or minister may need to be more careful with what they discuss with very young children, unless they know the children well.

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