Children Who Witness Abuse

children who witness abuse

For the Mother:

  • Understand that there is a reason for the child’s behavior and acknowledge that in words for them. Children will work out reasons of their own for the turmoil, often blaming themselves, unless you discuss what is going on.
  • Let your children know that the fighting is not their fault.
  • Give them permission to talk about the abuse. Information and talking about feelings helps to sort out what is going on. If you are not able to handle talking with your child, make sure she knows one or two other people that you feel comfortable having her talk to.
  • Help them to work out a safety plan: a safe place to go when there is fighting, numbers they can call, and make sure they know it is not safe to get in between fighting adults.
  • Acknowledge the mixed feelings they may have toward their parent; it is still okay to love him/her, but hate what he/she does.
  • Make sure your child knows that keeping silent about abuse at home sometimes leads to keeping silent about other negative experiences.
  • Help the child to identify feelings other than anger, and help them find safe ways to express those feelings. Try to notice and comment on what your child is doing right.
  • Be as specific as you can about what is going to happen in everyday life. Children who live with abuse need information ahead of time about where they will be, and how long they will stay. If your child has a hard time separating from you, reassure him, and tell him you will be safe and when you will be back.
  • Get support for yourself. It takes extra patience to cope with a child who is acting out because of witnessing abuse.

For Teachers and Child Care Workers:

  • Try to incorporate into daily activities, a discussion of feelings and how to express them and recognize them in other people. Some children who witness violence only recognize and express anger; a feeling vocabulary helps them to express what they are experiencing.
  • A child who witnesses abuse often has a short attention span as a result of being constantly on edge at home. Try to avoid focusing excessive negative attention on this behavior and, if possible, support the child in redirecting his energy.
  • Try to discuss behavior in terms of “safe and not safe”, rather than “bad, good, nice, not nice”. The child may already be suffering with very low self-esteem and will tend to identify with the aggressor in her family if she hears at school that she is not nice.
  • Consistency, routine and follow-through are very helpful in assisting a child who is coping with violence. Try to create a feeling of safety and predictability in the child’s environment, using visual cues, like clocks, whenever possible. Self-esteem words and phrases that identify concrete examples of positive behavior (helpful cleaning up, shared his snack) go a long way to counter feelings of worthlessness and helplessness, especially when written down.
  • Be as clear as possible about rules and consequences. Try to avoid the appearance of arbitrary punishments or decisions. Children who witness violence often have a very keen sense of justice.
  • Offer limited choices. This increases a child’s sense of control over her world. Try to be patient with decision making: it may be an unusual experience for her. Give a time limit.
  • School-age children can benefit from discussions of gender stereotyping. Boys especially need to know that the abuser in their family is not the only way to be male.
  • Challenge stereotypes in popular culture that show helplessness and aggression. Identify other ways of coping with problems.
  • Help the child identify her “support systems”; safe family members or adults that can help a child by listening.
  • Know that the child’s mother is doing the best she can under the circumstances. Be aware of the issues she is facing, and try not to judge her for what may look like poor parenting practices in your view. If you have noticed routines or patterns that seem to help or hinder the child, share them with his mother, but be aware that she may not always be able to act on the information immediately or consistently.
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