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Supporting a child when talking about violence

You need to actively pursue the voices, feelings and opinions of children when it comes to domestic violence. Hearing their perspective is the best way to learn how the violence may be harming them and how you can make them safer.

In the table below are some examples of considerations and conversation ideas you can try. This is not a definitive list, but a way to get you started with your own casework.

Print this table.

Practice considerations Conversation ideas

Children are likely to respond to practitioners who are:

  • warm, open and approachable
  • interested in them and enjoy their company
  • able to notice their emotions
  • capable of hearing their story and pain
  • acknowledge it may be hard or scary for them
  • able to provide a safe space for them to share their story.
  • ‘You looked upset when I talked about your dad. Tell me about that.’
  • ‘I talk to lots of kids about their worries. It can be scary telling someone like me about your worries but I might also be able to help.’
  • ‘Thank you for telling me that dad pulls mums hair. I want you to know that I believe you.’
  • ‘Thank you for speaking with me. I really like spending time with you.’
  • ‘Other kids have told me … [they feel, have seen or life is like] Is it like that for you, or is it different?’

Respond to fear and blame

Always tell the child that the violence is not their fault. Consider:

  • that he may have used strategies to undermine them such as ridicule
  • that they may fear talking about the violence because of the consequences, like their dad going to jail or them being removed from their mum
  • the impact on the child
  • when the man who uses violence is gone.
  • ‘It is not your fault that mum gets hurt. It is never your fault, even if [man] tells you it is.’
  • ‘It is the job of adults to keep kids safe. There are adults who will work to keep you and your family safe.’
  • ‘It’s okay to love and want to spend time with dad. It’s okay to be mad at him. Lots of kids who I speak to also feel scared.’
  • ‘If you feel worried later — after I have left — you can contact me. Who else can you talk to?’
  • ‘If the police come to see [man], this is not your fault.’

Understand their broad experiences

  • Ask about everyone in the family, noticing their emotional reactions.
  • Talk with them about how places, people and things make them feel — these feelings and physical sensations are valuable insights into a child's experience of safety or harm.
  • Help them share their ideas about safety.
  • ‘Tell me about who lives in your house. Tell me more about [man].’
  • ‘Tell me about your house. What happens in your house? How do you feel about your house? How do you feel about granny’s house?’
  • ‘When you feel scared, what do you do? How do you do that? What happens when you do that?’
  • ‘When you feel happy, what are you doing? Who is there?’

Use their language

Most children don’t relate to the term domestic violence but may talk about hitting and hurting. Ask questions that will help you understand dynamics of power and control.
  • ‘Who’s the boss in your house?’
  • ‘Dad smashes shit up. Tell me about dad smashing shit.’
  • ‘I’m interested in Brian’s angry looks. Tell me about that.’

Name the violence and ask about how they cope

  • Draw out beliefs about living with violence.
  • Seek to understand the roles of each child in the family (imposed or assumed).
  • Consider any other stressors experienced by the family.
  • ‘Where are you when Dad calls mum a slut?’
  • ‘What did you do?’
  • ‘What happens when you … [action]’
  • ‘Dad was punching the wall. What did you do?’
  • ‘You hid in your bedroom. That sounds like a pretty smart idea. Then what did you do?’
  • ‘What do you think about Brian hurting mum?’
  • ‘You saw mum crying. What did you do? What does [sister] do?’
  • ‘What happens when you get home from school?’ ‘What is happening in the house when you are watching TV?’

'Children think and behave differently from adults, so the approach we take with them must be different. We can use the medium of play to communicate with children ... Under extreme stress children turn their play to very specific purposes and use play to try to master their fear-provoking pasts and anticipated futures; Children’s overwhelming need to play out crisis or trauma suits our purposes.’

Everyone Deserves to Feel Safe: The Culturally And Linguistically Diverse Safe from the Start Project(Spinney, 2014 )

Activities to get children talking

A child’s play can tell you a great deal about their experiences of and responses to violence. This knowledge can help you support them in processing their pain.

When working with a child through play, remember the following points:

  • Don’t jump ahead. Follow the child's lead.
  • You don’t need to be a therapist to be therapeutic.
  • Be careful not to use adult (or force your own) interpretations on to what they are doing or saying—check in with the child about what they mean.
  • Ask about responses.
  • Play does not need to be structured or use therapeutic tools for it to be meaningful.

Tools to engage a child

St Luke’s bear cards

Ask the child to pick a bear for each of their family members. Say: ‘Tell me about dad bear. What is dad bear doing?’

They may like to pick more than one for some family members. You can explore different bears for different times of the day and night.

Choose a happy, sad or worried bear card or sticker. Ask: ‘What makes this bear happy, sad or worried?’ ‘When are you happy, sad or worried like this bear? Are there things that mum, dad or your siblings do to make you feel happy, sad or worried like this bear?’

Download the Bears App to your phone, so that you always have them with you.

The Three Houses Tool

The Three Houses can be used to explore the acts of violence and other behaviours that frighten and worry the child; as well as what worries they have for others. It can help explore protective factors that can shape safety and case planning and create a picture of what needs to change for the child to feel safe and happy. This can be a powerful motivator for change for the man using violence.

The Safety House

The Safety House is used to hear from the child about who and what can keep them safe, what rules need to be in place and how we can get to a point where the child feels safe. This tool can also be used to explore any feelings of blame they may have and worries about what may happen because we are involved and if they talk to us about what is happening.

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