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In the last track, we discussed the possibly overlooked
consequences that children suffer from as the unintended victims of domestic violence.
These consequences are role reversal, slowed motor development, and somatic complaints.
As you know, children residing in shelters have been forced to leave home with few or no belongings, at any hour of the night or day, following a violent incident. This obviously defines a crisis for a child, as their normal coping patterns and support systems, which may not have been initially healthy, are disrupted. Have you found like I have, that this disruption in the child's life can often be overlooked as a crisis event?
As you know, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of domestic violence shelters in the United States. However, not all shelters accept children, and of those shelters that do, only a small fraction offer counseling services for the children. Statistically, domestic violence shelters often have no treatment for the child as a victim and mainly focus on the battered woman. Yet, children often outnumber adult residents by a factor of two to three.
Let's look specifically at 3 Crisis Behaviors that Tony, a nine-year old boy living in a shelter with his mother, worked through.
These 3 Crisis Behaviors, among others, are often typical of children entering
a domestic violence shelter. After presenting the crisis behaviors of emotional
suffering, inappropriate aggression, and hiding the problem, we will discuss three
steps I took with Tony to help him through his crisis behaviors.
Behavior #1: Emotional Suffering
To help Tony deal with his conflicting emotions about his father, I found I needed to accept the full range of feelings that he had toward him. One minute he loved his father, and the next minute Tony's hands were clenched in frustration thinking about his father. I found in my sessions that this teetering back and forth was actually allowing Tony to reconcile his conflicting emotions. When Tony learned to accept the hate and love that he felt, he was less confused when his emotions didn't match. Have you also found that children such as Tony will swing between love and anger toward their parents? Do you allow them to freely experience these emotions?
Behavior #2: Inappropriate Aggression
As Tony began to work through his feelings about abuse with me, he would often lash out at others inappropriately. Tony's behavior became increasingly aggressive, abusive, and negative. When children begin to lash out, as with Tony, I find that I need to do two things. First, I do not tolerate the acting-out behaviors. But second, I try to lovingly enforce the rules of the shelter regarding inappropriate behavior.
Behavior #3: Hiding the Problem
3-Step Technique for Helping Your Client Through Crisis Behaviors
#1. Spend Time. As you know, crisis workers may have only a short time to spend with an abused child. The mother may return home the next morning. Usually, the time is spent focusing on providing the mother with information regarding resources, etc. However, with Tony, I made a point to spend time with him, even though it was only a few minutes. I wanted to show him that I noticed him, and that I cared. Do you agree that these children need to feel seen and understood?
#2. Name feelings. I have found that children of domestic violence often feel emotions they are unable to express. As you know, they might be too young to define the feelings or too scared to express them. In my sessions with Tony, I felt that he was very frightened. Due to the fact that Tony stared stoically at the ground, I felt most probably that Tony's fear may have been unacceptable or unsafe for him to express. I stated to Tony, "What you are telling me seems like it must have been very frightening for you. Were you scared? I think I would be scared if I were you."
#3. Reinforce. I, like you, have found that children of domestic violence will often feel that they have done something bad by revealing the abuse at home. After Tony first told me how he witnessed his father holding his mother's hand on the stove burner, I noticed he began acting guilty and ashamed. I stated to Tony, "I know it's really hard to talk about these kinds of things, but I'm proud of you for telling me. It's much better to tell an adult you can trust than to hold it all inside." I also assured Tony that he had not burdened me by telling me about the abuse, nor was he being disloyal to his parents.
Are you currently treating a child like Tony who is suffering from the crisis behaviors of emotional suffering, inappropriate aggression, and hiding the problem that were discussed in this track? Would these three steps of spending time, naming feelings, and reinforcing help him to deal with his crisis?
In the next track, we will discuss a group treatment that can address these issues and help the children to cope with their situation.
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