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Opening our eyes to ways children and young people cope with violence

A child hurt by domestic violence can be fearful, hypervigilant and always wondering when the next episode of violence will erupt. They will think and do things, emotionally and physically, to protect their mother, themselves, their siblings and their pets.

Where there is violence, a child assesses their role in the family dynamic and adapts their behaviour. This may be obvious, but at times it can show up in everyday acts that can easily be overlooked if you are not listening or curious about their coping. A child’s act of protection or ways of coping are also often misinterpreted, pathologised or used to judge them harshly.

Common ways of coping with violence

A child’s ways of coping can come in many forms and are motivated by self-preservation. Their coping mechanisms can involve feelings (emotional), thoughts (cognitive) or actions (behavioural). Coping and survival strategies are used at the time of an attack and in between attacks, and can stay with a child right through their adult lives.

The following are ways of coping you may see in a child living with domestic violence.

Trying to predict, explain, prevent or control the behaviour of the man using violence

A child may:

  • not cry or ask for their needs to be met
  • be hypervigilant to loud noises and startled by new sounds
  • explain behaviour in ways that minimise the abuse such as ‘Mum makes Dad do it’, ‘Dad is really stressed’, and ‘I was bad and brought it on myself’
  • think: ‘I can stop the violence if I change how I behave’
  • try to be ‘the perfect child’
  • conceal or try to avoid stressors, for example, not showing Mum and Dad their school report, fearing comments or grades might result in an attack.

Mental blocking

A child may:

  • seem emotionless or disconnected about the violence
  • seem detached from relationships
  • try to imagine they are somewhere else
  • use and misuse alcohol and other drugs
  • tune out attacks—such as by using headphones, their laptops or phones to become oblivious.

Retreating to fantasy

A child may:

  • plan or talk about getting revenge on the man who uses violence or think about killing him
  • call him names and make fun of him behind his back
  • fantasise about a happier life, a new family or different father or mother
  • fantasise about being rescued by a superhero or the police
  • as a young person, fantasise about the escape opportunities presented by a new romantic relationship
  • dream about starting a family of their own.

Physical avoidance

A child may:

  • leave the room or the house when the man is home or during a violent attack
  • hide when they sense the man may attack or is attacking
  • not talk to or engage with family members
  • divert their siblings into activities away from the man (such as kicking the ball outside or riding bikes)
  • avoid going home, instead opting to stay with friends, to hang around, to misbehave at school to get detention or to throw themselves into extra-curricular activities
  • run away from home.

Seeking out love, affection and family

A child may:

  • hang out with people who are unsafe for them
  • be clingy to their Mum, sibling or other person
  • seek out connection with other community members or friends’ families
  • use sex as a surrogate for intimacy and love
  • quickly enter into serious relationships with new partners
  • move in or frequently stay for extended periods with their new partners.

Becoming the carer

A child may:

  • act like a parent to their siblings: readying them for school, helping them with the homework and making their dinner
  • nurture and take care of their mother. This can include emotional comfort (‘a shoulder to cry on’) and financial help in the form of getting a job and helping to pay for bills or food, or trying to protect her from his violence
  • protect their siblings from the danger of violence.

Reaching out for help

A child may:

  • tell an extended family member, teacher or someone else
  • call the police or crisis helplines
  • talk to friends
  • use online communities and social networks to talk about their feelings
  • search for information and help online through blogs, forums and websites.

Crying out for help

A child may:

  • act out at school
  • retreat from friends
  • self-harm
  • use alcohol and other drugs
  • develop disordered eating or exercising
  • hurt people, damage property or break the law.

Re-directing emotions into productive activities

A child may:

  • get involved in sports and fitness
  • take on creative and artistic pursuits like writing and journaling. This can take the form of blogging, including video and visual blogging and using social media to produce and share content
  • excel academically.

Sometimes the safest things for a child to do are to hide or remain quiet. A child may think they did nothing when there was violence happening, when in fact, they were very smart and kept themselves safe by hiding.

Why you need to see a child’s way of coping

A child’s ways of coping often allow them a sense of accomplishment—a feeling that they have successfully diverted or lessened the abuse or that they have defied the abuser.

It can restore a child’s sense of self, power and self-esteem

Noticing a child’s acts of protection or coping style and reflecting this back to them can make them feel powerful. It helps them maintain a sense of identity and self-efficacy, which is often damaged from the control and violence. This can make them see themselves in a new way—stronger, braver, bigger and more capable.

It’s also useful for a child’s self-esteem for them to think about what they did to oppose the abuse. Discussing a child’s way of coping with them can help them overcome feelings of self-blame or responsibility. Once safe from harm, this restored sense of self is crucial to helping them heal.

It makes your assessments more accurate

When you notice a child’s acts of protection and ways of managing and coping with violence, you are better equipped to understand their strengths, resources and vulnerabilities.

You are able to be accurate in your assessment of their future risk, because you have an understanding of when they are most and least safe, and of how they try to promote safety for themselves. You can build on a child’s acts of protection to help them be safer.

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