It’s common for children and teens to not respect the authority of the parent who is being abused. Abuse often reinforces a relationship model where the abusive parent is seen as the authority figure who demonstrates how the non-abusive parent should be treated. It is also common for a parent who is being abused to feel guilty about their children’s exposure or exhausted by their consequential behavior, but this should not discourage them from helping their children learn clear boundaries and limits to their behavior. Parents are in a unique position to positively prepare their children for their future.
There are a number of things parents can do to help their children cope and to teach their children to make good choices. You can:
CREATE A SAFETY PLAN: Help children and teens develop a plan for safety. You might start this conversation by asking, “What do you do when you are scared of [the abusive person]? What are things you can do to stay safe? What are ways I can help you?”
HELP THEM IDENTIFY FEELINGS: For instance, you might say, “I was feeling really scared. How were you feeling?
HELP THEM LEARN LIMITS: Set firm limits on how children and teens may or may not act in order to teach them respectful behavior. This includes teaching children and teens to say “please” and “thank you.” Set clear consequences when they are disrespectful, such as “time outs” whenever possible. Recognize these limits may not be upheld if your partner who is abusive is around, but when you can, be firm. Consistency helps to develop positive habits and actions when interacting with people.
DEVELOP ROUTINES: Provide children and teens with as much routine as possible. This includes mealtimes, bedtime, and creating a routine when transitioning between activities or leaving the house. For example, “It’ll be time for bed in 10 minutes” or “We’ll be leaving in 15 minutes, so everyone needs to have their shoes and coats on in 10 minutes.” This provides them with the space and time to transition to the next activity.
TEACH GOOD BOUNDARIES: Explain to children there are boundaries in life that need to be respected. For example, “This is your body and no one has the right to touch it.” If you are playing with a young person and they ask you to stop, respect their voice and stop. This helps model respecting boundaries. This also reinforces with children and teens that it is okay to assert themselves in a respectful manner.
DISCUSS THE VIOLENCE: Don’t be afraid to discuss the violence the child or teen may be witnessing or experiencing. Don’t lie about or excuse abusive behaviors. For example, “When [the abusive person] acts that way, I feel really scared and helpless. I am so sorry you have to see that. You can always talk to me about if you need to.” This provides you with an opportunity to get the child or teen talking about feelings and fears. It also allows you to explain unacceptable behaviors.
FOSTER STRONG RELATIONSHIPS: Build social connections and bonds with friends and family, to create a social support network for your children. If possible, enroll them in youth activities and encourage them to develop relationships with other caring adults who are good role models (e.g., aunts, uncles, coaches, etc.).
INSPIRE HOPE: Explain to children and teens that their life does not need to be defined by the violence they are experiencing. Help them to understand other ways of living and that many children who experience domestic violence in their childhood grow up to live very healthy and happy lives. You may say to them, “I am sorry this is happening to you. You are not responsible for any of the violence. I want you to know that this doesn’t define you. You get to choose your path.”
GET OTHER RESOURCES: If it is safe for you to do so, read through some of these recommended parenting books and websites.
- The Batterer as a Parent by Lundy Bancroft
- K.I.S.S. (A Kid Is So Special): Strengthening Mother-Child Bonds by Beth Bitler
- Additional resources can be found in the RESOURCES section.
LEAVING: If you want to leave an abusive relationship, here are some helpful resources:
- Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
- Book: When Love Goes Wrong by Ann Jones and Susan Schechter