Children often experience great relief when they have escaped a situation of domestic violence along with their victimized parent. Once the crisis has passed, they may seem to be "okay." But how are they really doing?

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The children may not let you see them cry, and they may not want to talk about domestic violence or its aftermath. They may even insist they are “fine.” Caring adults want to know if they should believe that the children have survived unscarred, or keep probing for possible problems.

Why do children and teens want to avoid talking about what happened? Some children want to protect the victimized parent from additional stress and worry. Some are hoping they can just "forget" it—their memories seem too large and painful to discuss. Others are afraid they might be punished if they “complain.” Some have taken to heart the family habit of denying the abuse, while others may have secrets they are afraid to tell. And some children are resilient and cope remarkably well, despite hardship. How can we know how a child or teen is really doing? Here are three places to start:

1. Find out how your child behaves in other settings. Ask teachers, coaches and even the parents of your children’s friends how your child acts when you are not there. You do not need to say why you are asking—it is perfectly normal to want to know. Does your child have friends? Does your child participate in activities? Does your child get along well with peers and teachers? If other adults report that your child is unusually withdrawn or aggressive, or struggles with schoolwork, it may be a sign that your child needs extra support. If your child is doing well in other settings, this suggests that your child has found effective ways to cope. Nevertheless, stay attentive! Sometimes all seems to be well during one stage of your child’s life but problems pop up later.

2. Pay attention to your child's non-verbal expression. Sometimes children and teens say everything is okay with their words, but their bodies tell a different story. If your child has problems with sleeping, under or over-eating, or has unexplained aches and pains, this may be an indication of unresolved trauma or other problems. These are not necessarily a result of the domestic violence exposure, however; your child could have other worries that are completely unrelated (such as relationships at school). Speak with your children about their lives, and have physical symptoms checked out by an empathic and reliable medical provider.

3. Is your child or teen having trouble focusing? Sometimes children with a trauma history have trouble sitting still or concentrating on their schoolwork. When they scan the environment for signs of danger, startle at sudden noises or movements, or even respond in an overly aggressive way, this can look like symptoms of ADHD, when it is actually a response to trauma. (Because computer and video games train children’s brains to expect and respond to rapid stimuli, it is a good idea to limit your child’s exposure to electronic media. In this way, your child’s brain will become accustomed to the pace of non-electronic interactions). We all need unscheduled time to think and process the large and small events in our lives. As parents, we model this behavior, by putting away our phones, turning off the TV, and engaging in activities with our children such as reading, going for a walk, cooking together, and talking about our days. If problems persist, consult with your children's teachers and medical providers. Sometimes just a few sessions of EMDR or Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can make all the difference in the world.

When Children and Teens Keep Silent

What should you do if your child or teen refuses to talk? 

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“I wouldn’t push them to talk about anything when they are not ready. Just say, ‘I’m here and willing to listen any time you do want to talk. And if there is someone else you feel more comfortable talking to, like a counselor, just let me know,’” suggests Eric Aronson, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist and trauma specialist in Montpelier, Vermont. 

Aronson recommends reassuring children that they can discuss sensitive subjects and that they do not need to protect the adults around them. Aronson points out that children sometimes grow angry at their victimized parent rather than at the abuser. They may blame her for the changes in their lives post-separation, such as having to move or change schools and leaving friends and pets. He urges protective parents to be patient and understand that children blame the parent who is safer to blame. Children’s views are likely to change over time.

Parenting under the shadow of an abusive partner takes a toll on victim/survivors. Many survivors discover they are kinder and more empathetic parents when they no longer feel threatened on a regular basis. But the period immediately after the separation can be tumultuous; have faith that it will settle down. Make sure you have the support of a domestic violence advocate, especially if you are concerned about your safety.

Here are some ways to support children exposed to domestic violence: spend quality time together, help children name and manage their emotions, and involve them in activities where they experience success. Creating safe calm environments and being warm and supportive will go a long way to boost the recovery of children and teens. Parents should avoid all forms of verbal and physical violence including spanking. The basic message? “We have been through a lot. I will keep you safe now.”

For more information on children and domestic violence, check out this resource on the Domestic Shelters website. 

References

American Psychological Association (2019). Resolution on Physical Discipline of Children By Parents