When violence is occurring in the home and a child is present, things can quickly go from bad to worse. Perpetrators may use the child as a pawn to tip the power equation, direct their rage toward the child, or the child could get caught in the crossfire unintentionally. And even if the child is not directly in harm’s way, witnessing the violence against others in the home can be extremely frightening, traumatic, and debilitating to the child. For all of these reasons, and many others, it is vital that the child is aware of a safety plan that could help lessen the risk of them incurring physical and emotional harm.

As a volunteer at a domestic violence hotline, I was trained to go over safety plans with the individual who is being abused and ensure that any children in the home are likewise trained to react properly. These safety plans can be critical tools for individuals who are experiencing domestic violence, and particularly for the helpless children in these homes.

Possible points of safety and instructions to go over with your child that could help mitigate potentially dangerous situations may include:

1) A safe place: Select a hidden place the person perpetuating the violence is unaware of or unlikely to look for to which a child can retreat if violence starts or escalates in the home.

2) A code word: Chose a word or phrase you and your child agree on that would signal to the child that violence might be about to begin or escalate in the home. Make sure to explain to the child what this code word means and what to do if they hear it. Practice using this word, to make sure the child recognizes it and responds appropriately.

3) Phone access: Make sure the child has access to a phone in case violence occurs and explain to them what to do with the phone.

4) 911: Show the child how to dial 911 and tell them what to say when the operator picks up. Make sure to teach them your address and phone number so they can tell the operator where help is needed.

5) Prevention of physical harm: Tell the child that if violence occurs, they should never attempt to intervene but rather should stay far away from the fighting.

6) Key messages for resiliency: Explain to the child that the violence in the home is not their fault and that they should not feel responsible, guilty, ashamed, or angry at themselves for “letting it happen.” Tell them that it is NOT normal, that this is NOT how all families live or should live, and that it is NOT ok to take out aggression on others in their lives because of this terrible example. Tell them that the violence they’ve experienced does not have to define them or chart their course in life.

7) Resources: Use the resources available in your community. Call a domestic violence hotline to get more information on support, shelters, legal options, and other vital resources. The National Domestic Violence Hotline number is 1-800-799-SAFE.

These tips are not a substitute for seeking safe alternatives and, if necessary, removing children from an environment that would cause them physical or emotional harm. But they are an important safety layer if domestic violence is unavoidable and if safely exiting such a situation is not a viable option.

By Laura Sandall

This post was originally posted by Makers of Memories – now renamed the Childhood Domestic Violence Foundation.