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Roles children adopt in response to domestic violence

A child who lives with violence actively interpret, predict and assess their role as it relates to both their family and the abuse. They worry. They problem solve. And they work hard to physically and emotionally protect themselves and others.

Paying attention to the roles adopted by a child helps us to understand how siblings may have very different understandings of what is happening in their family. This can be helpful in working with any tensions between siblings or between mothers and their child. It can also help you anticipate how a child may think, feel and behave once they are safe, for example, in out-of-home care.

Note

Remember, the role adopted in response to domestic violence may be assumed by the child or it may be imposed on them. If a child is using the role as a way to cope, they may find it difficult to stop, even when they are safe.

Common roles

These roles demonstrate a child’s self-preservation. They are rooted in the dynamics between the child, the mother and the man who abuses them, and they can change over time.

The caretaker: They act as a parent to younger brothers and sisters and may also look after their mother. They might help to keep them safe when the violence happens and comfort them afterwards.

The victim's confidante: They know their mother’s feelings, concerns, and plans.

The perpetrator's confidante: They might be treated better by the perpetrator and might be told that the victim deserves the abuse. The child or young person might be asked to report back on the victim's behaviour and be rewarded for doing so.

Abuser's assistant: They may be recruited or forced to assist in abusing the victims verbally or by participating in physical abuse.

The perfect child: They try to be good, believing that this will stop the violence from happening.

The referee: They try to keep the peace. They may try to physically intervene when the violence is happening.

The scapegoat: They are told that they are the cause of the problems. They might be told that they are to blame for the poor relationship between their parents or that if they behaved better, their mother would not be hurt.

(Cunningham and Baker, 2004)

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