Monday, February 6, 2012


At the domestic violence shelter where I work with the kids in small groups, we have few physically battered children. What we have is emotionally battered children.

Every time their father or father figure hits, shoves, or kicks their mother. Whenever he denigrates her, takes away her right to work, to own her paycheck, to make decisions about their life, home and children, he is doing the same thing to the children in that house.

In this way, they are learning lessons about control, power, cruelty, inappropriate or dishonest "forgiving", obsessive love, "keeping the peace" no matter what the cost, etc.

Some kids, at least initially, seem unaffected by the violence in their homes. They give the "right" answers in group re: women's rights, love, and dignity. But most of them have also learned to hide their feelings, even from themselves. Many may have identified with the aggressor (the batterer) but may not show this until they are in a safe situation for a long time.

Many think loyalty is love and ask to see their father. He may be a "good father" in many ways, but "good fathers" don't hurt mothers and terrify children. Don't steal a woman's sense of self with cruelty and terror.

Whether they outwardly show what has happened to them, these children are at high risk for repeating their early life experiences. It helps if Mom has had a decent partner before the abusive one. It helps if Mom gets away before the child truly comprehends what's going on.

But it is impossible to know how much damage has occured in many children. It makes me wonder if the "untouched" children simply hide or deny their fear and anger better than the openly angry, frightened ones.

So don't assume anything. Do listen and provide ways for kids to express themselves--toys that require creative play (doctor kit, soldiers, doll house, Legos, etc.). Paper, pencils, crayons,markers. Privacy if a child can't speak in a group. Stories or books that show other children in similar situations.

And don't wait for the "right moment." As soon as that child's mother leaves or thinks about leaving the batterer, provide services for both mother and child. Undoing as much harm as possible is what helping the battered child is all about.

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