The current world is one characterised by considerable uncertainty and anxiety. This can be an opportunity to step outside our comfort zones and develop new coping strategies for personal growth and resilience. But it can also be a time when relationship difficulties can become overwhelming and stress of this masks our ability to manage this time as well as we would like. Financial stress currently plays a big part in difficulties being experienced by many families. Struggling to manage our own reactions, will impact inevitably on our children.
I discussed this topic with Ena Shaw, psychologist, FDRP and Collaborative Practitioner, who has immense experience in this field. This is a summary of our discussion that can be considered in greater detail in the attached video of our conversation this month.
The impact of family violence on children- discussion of managing this in the current Covid-19 circumstances.
Posted by Creative Family Law Solutions on Tuesday, April 28, 2020
What does family violence look like through the eyes of a child?
All children will be experiencing a life right now that they have not seen before. Many of the things that they have enjoyed will no longer be possible. They will look to the important adults in their lives for help in developing a new framework for their life that sits within their temperament, age and stage of development.
If those that are near and dear to them have a clear and confident explanation for what is happening; if they are developing new and creative ways for making the most of the changing world; if they approach life with a sense of hope for the future; then the children will absorb this and use this to scaffold their own sense of meaning for the current circumstances.
If children are in home isolation with parents who are in a relationship characterized by coercion and control, or conflict and disagreement, or mental health issues or substance abuse, then it is more likely than not that they will be struggling to manage their world! Not only are these circumstances more likely to escalate and magnify any such issues for their parents or carers, but with home isolation there are few options to escape from this situation even temporarily, and other protective supports may not be as available.
Even if parents feel that they are hiding such issues from their children, and this is not playing out in front of them, the children will be aware of this and they pick up on the sense of danger.
What is the impact on children of the exposure to family violence?
Research shows that exposure of children to extended periods of stress or family violence can result in:
- A sense of helplessness
- Poor coping strategies
- Delay in meeting developmental milestones
- Difficulties in forming secure connections with others
- Impact on meeting individual potential including at school
- Insensitivity to inappropriate behaviour
- Aggressive behaviour
- Later in life poorer mental health outcomes, tendency to engage in risk taking behavior including substance abuse
What are the signs to look for?
Stress is not necessarily a bad thing, as it can be a motivator for change and the development of coping strategies and resilience. However the most important early sign, is if children have a change in their behaviour and are not acting in a way that would be expected for them. This is most obvious in the early stages to parents, as they know their children best. However, if parents are struggling themselves to manage a very difficult situation, then they may not be attuned to what their children are experiencing and how this is manifesting in their behaviour. It can also be difficult sometimes for parents to interpret children’s behaviour accurately as they may not see how a child is behaving with the other parent, and therefore not have the full picture.
Signs may include:
- Development is being compromised
- Being unusually argumentative and uncooperative
- A deterioration in school work
- Being demotivated or unusually withdrawn
- Acting out and being aggressive.
What are the best strategies to support children dealing with the consequences of family violence?
If parents are worried about their children, then they should talk to someone about this. This could be a trusted family member, friend or a professional or organization. Various resources are listed below. Safety must always be the priority, and there are options to achieve this even if they might not seem obvious. Discussing the various options will empower a parent to decide how to manage their circumstances to give them safety, and therefore provide safety for the children. Once in a safe space, this discussion can extend to how best to support the children to deal with the consequences of their experiences.
Children need an explanation in terms that they can understand taking into account their age, stage of development and temperament. They will understand their circumstances in different ways depending upon their stage in life.
Some tips for managing extreme stress and conflict in the home are:
- Make some time in your daily routine for exercise with your children-doing something together will provide a temporary respite
- Find a separate safe space within the home for the child to be themselves and enjoy activities on their own or with the protective parent
- Talk with your child about what is happening, to help them understand this, and in particular to acknowledge that it is not OK and that the parent is taking steps to manage this, and that things will get better-this will give them a framework to understand what is happening, manage their expectations in the moment, and give them hope for the future
- Give all explanations in a language that they can understand- is at their developmental level
- Keep them connected with the positive and supportive people in their lives- organize a regular phone call, Zoom or FaceTime meeting with grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins or friends
- Consider sending letters and cards to friends and family members- this will result in a response and give the child something tangible to hold onto from those that are providing scaffolding for them in these temporary and difficult times
- Be clear about boundaries-what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in the home, and during video and phone calls- and what reasonable consequences will be if these are not respected.
Remember that children are very resilient, and with love and nurture from even one parent, they are very likely to bounce back!
What resources are available to assist professionals?