How to Help Children in DV

03-10-2016 9:53 AM

“I have to help my friend because his dad is really mean to him, and his mom has a protective order," my 11-year-old son, Schaefer, tells me at dinner on Tuesday night.

According to Schaefer, Justin's dad tells him to ‘be a man’ and not to side with his mom. So Schaefer tells him to call me.

I was a proud mom, but as a clinical social worker in the field of family violence, I also know that it’s just not that simple.

How would I explain to Schaefer that Justin’s father chooses to hurt his mother?

How would I explain to him that Justin’s father chooses to hurt Justin?

When Schaefer was younger, I could get away with telling him that I help keep families safe. But here is the real deal.

We know that 3-4 million children between the ages of 3-17 are exposed to domestic violence every year. That includes witnessing abuse or being abused themselves. And there are big consequences: emotional, cognitive, behavioral and physical.

At school, these kiddos might look like they have ADHD. They act out, show anxiety, have a short attention span or even use violence to express themselves. They may also have a tough time making friends. After all, they don't have good relationship examples. And they often isolate themselves to keep the family's secret.

So, when your son asks you to help his friend, what do you do?

I quickly went to three of my favorite books that I use with kids who live in violent homes:

  1. A Family That Fights by Sharon Chesler Bernstein. I like this book because it normalizes disagreement without normalizing abuse. It highlights the complexity of loving a parent who hurts you or your mom. There is also some safety planning in the back of the book.

  2. Hands Are Not for Hitting by Martine Agassi. This is a great book to use with younger children to explain abuse. There is quite a bit of educational information in the back of this book as well.

  3. A Terrible Thing Happened by Margaret M. Holmes. Although we never learn what the terrible thing Sherman the raccoon experiences, we learn the normalcy of his reactions.

So, although books should never take the place of age-appropriate communication, they can help us along the way by giving us language and guidelines.

We also need to quit feeling afraid to be in each other’s business.

I am in no way suggesting that this is simple. I would just suggest always reaching out, even gently, to the mom. Does she have support? Is she already in counseling? Can you be helpful in any way?

After all, I might need Justin’s mom’s help some day as well.

Kelly Slaven, LCSW, is the Director of Program Operations at Dallas Children's Advocacy Center (DCAC). In her current role at DCAC, Kelly helps to ensure a seamless communication between departments as well as carrying a case load of clients. Kelly is new to the agency but has been a social worker in the field of family violence for the past 14 years. Kelly graduated from The University of Kansas with a Bachelor’s in English and California State University, Long Beach, with a Master’s in Social Work.