Domestic violence has a profound and far-reaching impact on individuals, families, and communities. While addressing the short and long-term effects of domestic violence is a complex process for anyone who has experienced this kind of abuse, children face a particularly unique set of challenges. In abusive households, children have to navigate their way through an environment that is often unpredictable and unstable. This already difficult circumstance is compounded by witnessing the emotional and psychological toll of abuse on a caretaker they are dependent upon. While children may not always be the direct target of the abuse in the home, they are always affected. Children are innately and acutely aware of dynamics within their own homes and require a support system tailored to their unique needs.
At Safe Shelter, we believe that it is critical to provide a safe environment for children to discuss their experiences with domestic violence. It is not uncommon for our advocates to be the first adults to discuss domestic violence with a child who is accessing our services. While there are many reasons why parents may not have specifically discussed their abuse with their children, an honest discussion about domestic violence is a crucial step in helping a child process and understand what they have experienced. As advocates, we work with children and non-offending parents to help facilitate these conversations and develop the tools necessary to sustain this communication in the long-term.
Too often, the non-offending parent has had to raise their children within an isolated environment of chaos and hostility. They have grown accustomed to protecting their child from an ever-present abuser in their home. An abuser’s rage and actions can never be truly predicted or avoided. We strive to foster an environment within our emergency shelter and public office of stability and safety. This allows the non-offending parent to learn how to parent in a predictable environment, ultimately giving them the space to parent how they wish to.
Many children come to Safe Shelter with the belief that they hold the ability to stop domestic violence from happening and that they can protect their non-offending parent. They carry with them the responsibility for what has happened to them and their families. At Safe Shelter, we lead with the philosophy that the victim(s) are never at fault for the violence. As advocates, we foster conversations with children surrounding what is in and outside of their control. This is important for young children to learn as it is an essential component to the burden of responsibility to be lifted from their shoulders. We are never responsible for things outside of our control.
Even though a child may be completely aware that an abusive parent’s behavior is unacceptable, they may still experience complicated feelings about their personal relationship with that parent. Seeing the pain that a non-offending parent has experienced can cause a child to feel confused and/or guilty about the fact that they still feel love for their other parent. It is important that a child knows that mixed emotions toward one’s parents are completely normal. When providing support for a child in this difficult position, it is important to validate these conflicting feelings while also always maintaining an honest and safety-focused approach to interactions this child will have with this parent moving forward. Safe Shelter strives to give children the space to process their feelings and explore the concept that while not all actions are ok, all feelings are.
Providing support for a child who has witnessed or experienced domestic violence is never easy. It is difficult to watch children struggle to navigate the changing circumstances and emotions that are often part of the process. While this can be intimidating, it is important to remember that getting support can make a significant difference. At Safe Shelter we recognize the particularly difficult and helpless position that children find themselves in, and we believe that children are entitled to comprehensive and honest support just like adults. While trauma cannot be undone, we aim to provide children with the tools they need to remain safe, to be heard, and to feel supported as they work through the process.