Kids blame themselves for violence at home

Kyla Reina is a Women's Refuge counsellor who works with children of women living in abusive relationships. She says that young people are victims as well.
Published on
May 18, 2017

Every parent’s natural instinct is to protect their child. I think most parents try to hide domestic violence from kids — ensure the fighting happens in another room or once the kids are in bed — and hope that is protection enough.Kids notice violence, even kids who are very young. A child can recognise an atmospheric shift in the home and feel the tension. They know when something scary is about to happen, they can feel that change in the pit of their stomach, much like an adult abuse victim does.

They know when something scary is about to happen, they can feel that change in the pit of their stomach, much like an adult abuse victim does.

When we don’t talk to children, they create the most wild narratives to rationalise the situation. It often becomes about them, them not being tidy enough or not getting a good enough grade at school. In their minds the abuse is their fault and therefore becomes their responsibility to fix.

Our kids need to know this isn’t about them and they are not the ones at fault. It absolutely isn’t their responsibility to fix what is a very adult problem.

Our kids need to know this isn’t about them and they are not the ones at fault. It absolutely isn’t their responsibility to fix what is a very adult problem.

No two children respond the same way to living with violence. It may look like acting out in school or becoming invisible at school, becoming a bully or being the one bullied. The child can behave violently towards a teacher or misinterpret the teacher’s authority as something to be feared. Our response has to be based on that child in that particular family.

I counselled two brothers, seven and eight years old, eventually realising they were bullies. The feeling of being able to roll around school and have other children be afraid of them was comforting. The power at school actually felt protective to them, whereas otherwise in their lives they had no control.

The home environments of these children were similar, but the way that the trauma manifested itself was completely different.

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The brothers were able to talk freely and because of that we could unpack those feelings. Then we asked questions about how they felt when their parent was abusive and connected the dots between those experiences and abuse they now perpetrated on other kids their age.

Another child in that same group struggled to make friends and was bullied repeatedly at school. The home environments of these children were similar, but the way that the trauma manifested itself was completely different.

The thing kids love most is a baking soda volcano which we use to demonstrate that anger is an emotion everyone experiences. The little volcano in our tummy can build and build until it explodes, unless we talk to people around us about our feelings.

While you can never say a child who experiences violence at home will grow up and become a perpetrator or a victim, these children are at a distinct disadvantage.

The reality remains that children who experience violence are exposed to a whole range of behaviours that children living in harmonious homes are not. The impacts on health and mental health are enormous.  When kids become teenagers there can be more reckless behaviour and even more disengagement from school.

While you can never say a child who experiences violence at home will grow up and become a perpetrator or a victim, these children are at a distinct disadvantage.

I think there’s more that could be done for them. Free counselling and programmes, services that are easier for parents to access. It’s not enough to have a programme, you have to be mindful of real life barriers and support everyone in the community to access that service.

I am constantly amazed by how resilient children are. It can be incredibly hard but we always laugh more than we cry in this programme.

It’s never too late to talk about what’s happening in your home. I would encourage children in violent home situations to reach out to people in their community or their non-abusive parent; try to access support together. It’s a difficult secret to live with alone, share the burden.

I am constantly amazed by how resilient children are. It can be incredibly hard but we always laugh more than we cry in this programme.

By Kyla Reina, Counsellor at Wellington Women's Refuge

Kyla coordinates the Tamariki Programme for 5 to 8 year olds who have experienced or witnessed domestic violence, focussing on what abuse looks and feels like, keeping safe and developing positive communication skills for sharing feelings.

To get in touch with your local women’s refuge now call 0800 REFUGE (733 843).