December 09, 2016 By domesticshelters.org
An estimated 15.5 million children in the U.S. live in a household where partner violence has occurred at least once in the last year, with 7 million of those children witnessing severe violence. Exposure to that kind of trauma can harm children of all ages. According to the Centers for Disease Control, adverse childhood experiences are linked to:
- Risky health behaviors
- Chronic health conditions
- Shorter life expectancy
A child’s best hope is to bond with other caregivers and experience caring and compassionate relationships through them.
“Caregivers and providers need to support and facilitate healthy, positive, nurturing relationships with safe adults, whether that’s the nonviolent caregiver or other family members involved with caring for the child. We know from our experience—and there’s a host of literature and research to support it—that when kids are able to be grounded in these kinds of relationships it’s the single most important indicator for them to be able to heal and thrive,” emphasizes Neena McConnico, MD, director of the Child Witness to Violence Project at Boston Medical Center.
Here are 18 things adults can do to help children who have witnessed domestic violence:
- Just be with them. “It’s quality over quantity. It can be small moments as simple as reading a book with a child. It’s more about trying to build upon moments of connection. It can be cooking together, it could be just having a conversation about the day—anything that helps to foster mutual connection and mutual joy and happiness,” says McConnico.
- Check in regularly. Kids who have been exposed to trauma need social support. Help them feel recognized and valued. And remember that kids who need help may push back against your support. “Children have seen adults act in very unpredictable, scary ways at times, and also on the other side they’ve seen them be very caring and loving. The idea of trust can be very confusing for kids,” McConnico points out.
- Let the child lead. “Sometimes for adults, talking about things can be helpful. It makes us feel better to vent or get it out. For kids it can be very different. Sometimes kids don’t want to talk about what happened or what they saw or experienced, so it may come out in different ways,” McConnico says.
- Listen. Active listening can help you connect with children. If children discuss traumatic events they have seen or heard try to be supportive and neutral. Don’t pressure children to talk about topics they don’t want to discuss.
- Be honest. Answer a child’s questions honestly but age appropriately. “The simpler the answer is, the better. You don’t need to get into a lot of details about what happened unless a child is older and able to understand. Answer in an honest way, because what kids will make up as a result of their imagination can be much worse than what actually happened or what the facts are. Being honest helps kids begin to makes sense of what happened and helps them with safety, trust, power and control,” McConnico says.
- Don’t make promises you can’t keep. All children want to feel safe. But you can’t promise safety. Instead use a phrase like, “I will do everything in my power to keep you safe.”
- Reduce stress and build coping skills. Ask a child, “What has helped you feel better in the past?” You might ask if certain activities help, like playing sports, creating art, writing in a journal, exercising, taking deep breaths or spending time with a pet. Encourage them to turn to these activities to reduce stress. Other options may include meditation, yoga or, in some cases, talking to a child’s doctor about anti-anxiety medications.
- Link children with things they love. Clubs or teams at school or in the community, art or music lessons, or volunteer opportunities can help children grow, believe in themselves and connect with others. “Do things that help kids feel good about themselves, special and unique. Let them see their positive qualities,” McConnico says.
- Help children manage their emotions. Model emotions and behaviors yourself, and use supportive language when children express their own emotions.
- Encourage friendships. Ask children which peers make them feel happy and confident, and encourage them to spend more time with those children.
- Be a role model. Show children how you deal with stress in your own life, and set an example of healthy, self-care behavior.
- Identify and connect with a child’s anchors. An anchor is someone who supports the child—this could be family members, foster parents, mentors, teachers or coaches, caregivers, friends or neighbors. “Kids by nature are so reliant on the adults around them to help take care of them and meet their needs. When you throw domestic violence into the picture it complicates things and feels chaotic and out of control,” McConnico says. Anchors can help kids regain a sense of safety, power and control.
- Build calm, stable environments. Children exposed to trauma may be constantly scanning for potential threats. A quieter environment with lower lighting and comfortable furniture can help them feel safe, as can knowing what to expect. “When kids know what to expect one moment or one day to the next it helps them feel grounded and safe,” McConnico says. “It can also help reorganize the structure of the brain in those areas that can be most impacted by chronic violence exposure.” Try creating a schedule for you child and repeating a reliable routine from day to day.
- Manage challenging behavior in healthy ways. Try to set clear limits for unacceptable behavior and implement logical consequences. Children’s behavior may be a sign that they are struggling with trauma, and they need to feel safe and in control. “Provide consistent, clear expectations about what is okay and what is not okay, what is permissible and what is not permissible,” McConnico says.
- Respect a child’s cultural background. You can support children who don’t share your culture or language. Ask about traditions they like, and help connect them with community organizations that focus on supporting people from their background.
- Seek out community resources. Health and faith-based organizations, school social workers and child advocacy groups can help you connect children with additional sources of support.
- Take care of yourself. Children exposed to domestic violence may show challenging behavioral issues, and hearing a child’s story of trauma can be upsetting. Be sure to get enough sleep, good nutrition and exercise and take steps to manage your stress.
- Don’t give up. McConnico says, “The brain is very malleable. All hope is not lost. The brain is constantly developing and when we’re able to support kids we’re able to help them more than people realize.”