Supporting children and young people
Most people worry about how they can talk to their child about difficult issues such as a parent/partner's abuse, the child's behaviour and school performance. The child does not have to witness abuse first-hand to be affected by it. If they know that another family member has hurt the victim physically or emotionally, they might be very sad and confused. Depending on their age, the child might also feel betrayed, hurt and angry. The child's feelings might impact on their behaviour in many different ways. Behaviour may become more difficult, or they may suddenly become 'too good'. Their concentration may suffer and they can lose interest in hobbies, school work or other activities. They might find it hard to make or keep friends. For older children this could be because they are trying to keep their home life a secret, for younger children, it might be because they find it hard to share or play easily.
Approaches that may help
- Discuss the situation using words that suit their age.
- Give them lots of care, affection and comfort.
- Give them lots of reassurance that the abuse or separation is not their fault.
- Do everything that can be done to help them live safely and securely.
- Watch their behaviour and play, for example, how they share and how they deal with not getting their way.
- Listen to them and allow them to show their feelings; tell them that it's okay to feel what they are feeling.
- The child needs to know how to express their feelings in a positive way. They need firm messages that it is never okay to hurt somebody.
- Encourage the child to talk about their feelings, worries and understanding of the situation.
- Talk with the child about ways of showing feelings, especially about safe ways of showing anger.
- Make this specific and suitable for their age. For example, "It's not okay to scream and kick friends at nursery/school" or "It's not okay to hit someone".
- Let them know what is okay and not okay behaviour.
- Consider whether counselling might help the child.
- tell the child what to do if they feel unsafe
- tell the child what to do if anyone ever hurts them (for example, 'Tell mummy/daddy or tell a teacher')
- if the victim has left the abusive person, it may help the child to say 'We are safe now.'
Low confidence or self-esteem or lack of social skills
Children who have experienced abuse often lack social skills such as sharing and playing. This can mean that they find it hard to make friends. It can also affect their school performance.
- Give the child lots of care.
- Encourage them to talk about what happens at school and when they're playing with their friends, but don't push them to name friends.
- Tell the child when they do something well.
- Identify and encourage positive behaviours, preferably straight away. For example, 'It was great that you asked Tom/Jane to play with you.'
- Name and praise activities that the child is good at. For example, “That's a great story you wrote" or "You're such a good swimmer".
- Help the child to participate in activities that they enjoy and are good at e.g. football, gym, music.
Activities to get the child to express how they feel
Drawing and painting are great ways to encourage a child to talk about how they are feeling especially if they are young. Sit down with the child and while drawing, or afterwards, ask the child to talk about their drawing. Often, children will express a lot this way, which opens up possibilities to talk about changes, feelings and worries. If the child draws something that is worrying, ask them about it.
Ask the child to draw a picture of:
- Their family doing something together
- Their new house and/or their old house
- A picture of themselves
- Themselves at school
- Dream drawings - draw a person sleeping in bed, dreaming. This could be shown by a large cartoon-like thinking-bubble. Ask the child to draw in the bubble what they think the person might be dreaming. Or ask the child to draw the person's good dream and bad dream. Ask the child to talk about their drawing. Ask if they have ever had those type of dreams. This is another playful and gentle way of opening up possibilities to talk about things, especially if children are having nightmares.
- Paper plate faces - ask the child to draw faces showing different feelings on the paper plates (happy, angry/mad, sad, scared). Join in too and make a game of the whole activity. These become masks that can be used to show and maybe talk about how the child feels about a place, a person, or about things that happen. Ask the child:
- Which face do you have on when you go to school?'
- Which face do you have on when it's bed-time?'
- Which face do you have on when you see mum/dad?
- Why do you have your happy/sad face on at school?'
- Encourage your child to hold the chosen plate/mask up to their face. Let them ask you questions too.
Remember the child needs love and understanding in what in their eyes is a confusing and frightening situation. Professionals working with children, including doctors, nurses, teachers and social workers, should make themselves available for the child to talk to, and offer the help and advice they need.
Parents have the greatest influence over their child, and learning and implementing positive parenting skills will be the greatest help available to the child. There are a number of parenting programmes around the county that although not specific to domestic abuse could help parents to develop positive parenting skills and the confidence to do so.