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Children and domestic violence: ‘There is never any harm in seeking support’

Child's play

Offering hope: “Young minds can find ways to be very expressive, particularly after trauma, but not in the same way that adult minds will react.”

PARENTS are being advised to reach out for professional help if they are worried that children have been affected by domestic and family violence.

Some counsellors warn that the effects may not be easy to recognise particularly for stressed parents coping with the strain of an abusive relationship and the demands of raising children.

Centacare executive director Peter Selwood said his staff had seen an increase in reported cases of domestic violence, which impacted more than just a partner who may be abused.

“We recognise that many children are caught up in this violence whether they’re victims of physical violence or they’re suffering trauma from watching it happen,” Mr Selwood said.

“There is never any harm in seeking support. Never be afraid or ashamed. At the very least, you will have provided an opportunity for a child to speak safely.”

Centacare has extensive experience in working with children affected by domestic violence.

Centacare’s counselling rooms include toys, sand trays and colouring pencils and paper which help children to express their feelings.

“Children usually present in two ways. They either have unregulated emotions and outbursts of anger or they are very withdrawn,” a Centacare family and relationships counsellor said.

“Sometimes, parents will bring in a child who is having angry outbursts and the parent will be worried the child has learnt that bad behaviour from watching an abusive parent.

“That may be the case but it’s also likely that the outburst is a response to the trauma, not learned behaviour.

“Children express themselves through emotion. They don’t understand what they are feeling.”

The cases that have confronted Centacare’s counsellors can be chilling.

The sand trays are a common means for children to express their feelings. 

They are often presented with animal figurines that they are asked to relate to their family members.

Counsellors often see the figure that represents an abusive parent buried beneath the sand, away from the other figures.

“Children engage in this expressive therapy very well. They can completely blow you away with what they produce in the sand tray,” the Centacare counsellor said.

“We once had a child who put the parent figure on their own in the sand and built a fence around them.

“From that fence, they built a path that made its way back to the family. The intention was clear from the child – the path is there to the family but the parent has to make the decision themselves to go down that path.

“If they don’t, then they would be forever trapped by their behaviour.

“Young minds can find ways to be very expressive, particularly after trauma, but not in the same way that adult minds will react.”

Find out more about the Archdiocese of Brisbane’s campaign against domestic and family violence.

The effects of domestic violence can be critical for children, impacting on learning development and on general behaviour.

Centacare tries to help parents work closely with children particularly those struggling with developmental issues.

“There has been a lot of study on children who have been exposed to early life trauma and suffer from developmental differences,” the Centacare counsellor said.

“We will see children who are sometimes seen as being badly behaved but in fact their brain development hasn’t had the same secure ability to grow because of what they have been through.

“We may see an eight-year-old who has been exposed to early trauma unable to complete a task like an eight-year-old who hasn’t been exposed to that.

“They may need their tasks broken down into much simpler requests to help them reach an equivalent level.

“But not every child who is exposed to trauma is unable to bounce back or be resilient.

“It depends on what has happened after the trauma. Are they now in a stable and safe environment or are they still being exposed to ongoing abuse?”

Centacare works with parents also to ensure that they have the appropriate support during some of the most difficult times in their lives.

The experiences can differ from family to family and not everything is what it seems.

“There can be a time when the absentee parent can be seen as a victim by the children,” the Centacare counsellor said.

“The parent looking after the children has to discipline them. The absentee parent doesn’t have to do that.

“The absentee parent may then be put on a pedestal and the children may long for them because whenever they see them they may play fun games and they’re not disciplined.

“But there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

“Some children will become resentful if they’re forced to see a parent that they really don’t want to see. They may become resentful to the parent who they believe forces them to see the other parent.

“These are never easy times but the most important thing is that people who are affected can reach out for support.”

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