Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Domestic Violence Child: Little Girl Lost

I've volunteered at a domestic violence shelter for three years, seeing the kids and teens in small groups. Last night,when I walked into the shelter dining room to have supper, I was surprised when a three-year-old girl flew at me, arms open, yelling, "Miss Pat, Miss Pat!" and smiling broadly. I was surprised since the week before she had been flat out furious with me.

That night, before, during, and after the Valentine's Day party, Little Girl Lost's limits-testing was off the chart. After the party, for example, when all the kids were cleaning up, she refused to so much as pick up the popcorn on the floor below her chair (a grand total of 5 kernels).

She had screamed during small group (5 kids) when I insisted she sit on a chair like everyone else rather than distracting us during "Story time." She screamed when a little boy wouldn't let her play with his hand-held game. And when someone told her she couldn't have two craft projects during the party, although everyone else only had one. In fact, screaming had been her immediate and constant reaction to anyone's refusal to give her exactly what she wanted--yesterday.

Some kids seem to survive their previous situations enough to feel ok during their stay, but I'm used to working with angry, depressed,and anxious kids at the shelter. I wasn't that tired of her behavior, annoying as it was, because for me, it only lasted 2 hours.

The resident kids, however, were so sick of LGL's constant defiance and anger they did something I've rarely seen at the shelter--they started calling her "baby","crybaby" and "stupid." They glared at her when she came near, refused to play with or help her.

This is rare because most kids at the shelter are "parentified." They are used to taking care of themselves, each other, and sometimes, their moms. These mothers often carry too much emotional baggage to parent their children properly when they're living in a domestic violence situation--particularly when they're thinking of leaving the abuser.

Some moms manage to carry on as if life were normal, especially if they work. Others, who stay at home and have landed firmly in survival mode may sleep more,cry frequently,treat and/or hide injuries,feel confused and overwhelmed and spend most of their energy trying to appease the abusive male. Their children are not at the top of their priority list although they may feel very guilty about this.

As a result, even small children may learn to change, feed, entertain and keep the baby quiet, remind Mom about school or other activities, develop hiding places or escape routes, feed themselves and clean the house.

When the family arrives at the shelter, the mother often falls apart and the other residents--children, teens, or women who are now feeling better--support her emotionally and help her kids. Some children who were not aggressive previously, even babies, start hitting or assaulting others or regress significantly as suppressed depression, anger and anxiety surface.

According to her mother, Little Girl Lost had been "a good girl" before they left home. Despite the everyday tension and anxiety, she hadn't been angry, demanding, or defiant.

Mom immediately tightened up her discipline of LGL and the other women living at the shelter, as well as staff and any volunteers working with her, including me, did the same. It took almost 4 weeks to see a change in this incredibly angry, stubborn, and uncooperative child.

But that 4th week when she ran at me smiling, arms open to be picked up, it was clear she was no longer "lost." Her mother warned me she didn't trust the change and hoped she'd be ok "downstairs."

That night,the children, as always, came with me and other volunteers or staff while the mothers went to their groups. LGL smiled, laughed, talked with other kids, did what I asked her to do, didn't pout, demand, or scream even once during those two hours. She even volunteered to help the other kids clean up the tables after snack!

I went upstairs to find her mother and tell her it looked like she had her sweet, happy child back just in time to move out. When I left, they were wrapped in each other's arms.

Which was a good thing, since next week the cycle will begin again when a new family claims her room.

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