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What you can do if your child has witnessed abuse...

REAFFIRM your unconditional love for your child. A big fear is that their behavior will cause you to leave or divorce them. Let them know that you will always love them no matter how bad their behavior is

ALLOW your child to express a range of feelings. When parents separate, children may feel sad, angry, shamed, guilty, afraid, confused, relieved or worried about who will take care of them, or relieved. These are all natural reactions you can expect from your child.

REASSURE them that you, as a family, will manage all the changes. It may take time, but you will all do okay and you will always look after them.

HELP them understand that your family is not the only family to have had this experience, and that other families have handled this situation successfully. You can mention that these are counsellors who work with children who have witnessed abuse.

ENCOURAGE them to talk about what they saw. It may be hard to hear what they have to say, but everyone needs the chance to express their feelings-especially feelings of anger, hurt, pain or fear.

ALLOW your child time to confide these feelings and accept that they may confide these feelings to other adults or friends. This doesn't mean that they don't trust you: sometimes it is easier to confide in someone not directly involved in the situation.

REASSURE them that they are not responsible for the abuse. Often children feel that their behavior caused the fighting and/or separation, and they need to be told that it is an adult problem and they did not cause it.

REASSURE your child that you don't expect them to look after you because they may feel responsible for keeping you or their siblings safe. The child's job is to keep him/herself safe, so make sure you go through safety plans. Give them the skills to phone 911, brainstorm a list of people they can go to if they need help, and safe places in the home.

ENCOURAGE your child to just be a child and not act as a surrogate partner. Give them permission to be a child. Develop a support system for yourself independent of your children. You deserve to be able to confide your feelings somewhere safe.

REMEMBER that while your child's anger may be directed at you -it is often about other things. Sometimes the anger has been brewing for a long while and the child now feels safe enough to let it out.

REDEFINE the word "family". Often abuse sufferers feel guilty and blame themselves for the change in circumstance and try to overcompensate. A spotless house won't create a perfect family. Nor will new toys or lessons. Create a home where your emotional needs and those of your children are nurtured.

CREATE a discipline method that is respectful and leaves everyone's dignity intact. Often, abuse sufferers will associate control with the abuse they experienced by their partners and need to re-learn effective parenting.

REMEMBER your child is not the abuser. Do not tell them that they are "just like" the abuser, especially when they are having trouble controlling their anger. Their relationship with you is different, the power dynamics are different.

MENTION to your child's teacher or daycare staff that there has been a change in your family. It helps that your child will be understood and supported by other adults. If there is a change in your child's behavior, they will then be better able to help your child.

Children can respond differently to stressful situations and not all children develop problematic coping styles. A number of factors will contribute to their reactions such as the child's own ability to handle stressful situations and the support system available to the child and family.


-Excerpted with permission from a Path Counselling Centre publication. The Path Counselling Centre provides Children Who Witness Abuse counselling to children aged 4 through 18, and programs for women who are survivors of relationship abuse. Services are offered free of charge to women and children living in the Tri-City area. For more information, call 420-2002.