Talking about domestic violence is never easy. Talking about it with the children who witness violence can be both a heartbreaking and confusing challenge for parents to navigate. But parents need to address the issue, whether or not they plan to leave.
“Having the conversation is hard on the survivor and may trigger anxiety and traumatic memories,” says Lizeth Toscano, a parenting educator with Echo Parenting and Education. “But silence isn’t an option. Silence is saying it’s OK that the violence happened.”
Here are six tips for talking to children about violence.
1. Find the right time. When is the right time to talk about violence within the home? That’s easy, Toscano says: “Whenever the child is ready.” She suggests asking open-ended questions after an incident, such as “That must have been scary for you to see. What do you understand happened?” Toscano also advises parents to be on the lookout for nonverbal cues in children. “Children tend to internalize issues,” she says. “If your child starts developing a lot of tummy aches and would rather stay with you than go to school, that’s a sign he or she needs to talk.”
2. Don’t wait. Children are more aware than parents like to think they are. Don’t ever think your child is too young to see what’s going on. And that means they’re never too young to start talking about it. “There’s never a time that’s too early to start talking to children about violence and safety, self-care and boundaries,” says Allison Crowe, Ph.D., a member of the American Counseling Association and an assistant professor at East Carolina University. “The best-case scenario is that we’re constantly talking to our children about these issues—not just when violence happens.”
3. Be age-appropriate. The most important messages to convey to kids are “I love you,” and “It’s not your fault.” As your child grows, you can start having conversations about relationships and boundaries. Use words that your child will understand and start conversations that are relevant to your child’s developmental level. For instance, discussing violence with a young child might include why it’s not OK to hit a sibling or classmate. With teens, it’s important to discuss intimate partner abuse as they begin dating. Whatever your situation or step in the process of leaving, make sure children understand that the violence they may see at home is not OK.
5. Continue to discipline. Parents who feel guilty about exposing children to violence may “go easy” on them after an incident to try and make up for the trauma. But structure and stability are paramount to children, particularly when violence is present in the home. Continue to keep a routine going as best you can, and be consistent with discipline.
6. Get help. Parents don’t have to go it alone. Resources in the form of children’s books, online programs and counselors are available to help them talk to kids about domestic violence. Take caution if these resources could put yourself or your children in danger if found by the abuser. Talk to an advocate about making sure you and your children stay safe while also getting your children the help they need.
To learn more about protecting your children from domestic violence, check out Getting Kids Out of Harms Way and important facts about potential outcomes of children experiencing violence.