Many people shy away from the idea of talking to children about violence against women and, in particular, intimate partner violence affecting women. Abuse and violence are seen as topics that we should avoid mentioning in front of children – supposedly so that they can have childhoods free from worry.
But assuming that not talking to children about such violence will allow them to live in blissful ignorance is ignorant in itself. An American study suggests that between 10 and 20% of children are exposed to domestic abuse every year – and around 1/3 of all children will witness such abuse at some point in their childhoods. Children witnessing abuse are severely affected; Women’s Aid characterises those children who have been exposed to abuse in the home as being victims of emotional abuse themselves. SafeLives has also found that 25% of children who had been exposed to abuse in the home then went on to perpetrate abusive behaviours themselves, either towards their mother or siblings (but almost never towards the abusive partner).
So not talking to children about domestic violence and violence against women isn’t exactly a helpful course of action, seeing as many will be witnessing and experiencing it. Yes, many children do not have any exposure to domestic abuse growing up, but this doesn’t mean they do not witness and are not aware of violence, and pretending that violence doesn’t exist can only be counterproductive.
If we want to create a safer future society for women and girls, we must make sure to involve children in our conversations around gender-based violence and help them to learn alongside us. Ignorance may seem like bliss, but it is often a breeding ground for falsehoods and prejudiced attitudes which become difficult to unlearn.
So, we need to talk to our kids about this violence – not only for their safety and so that they feel able to identify what is happening should they witness an abusive situation, but also so that they learn that this violence is never acceptable.
But of course, how do we do this in a ‘child-friendly’ way? Well, here are some ideas.
Be honest but not graphic
As adults, we must get our facts straight before we speak to children. Sharing misinformation and misconceptions about violence against women with children only has long-term drawbacks for the child and wider society.
Before speaking to children about this violence, or before addressing a child who may be witnessing abuse, make sure that you are fully informed on the subject and are not spreading misinformation, prejudices or using victim-blaming language – however inadvertent that may be.
For example, if you tell a young girl ‘some men hit women’ and the child starts to panic, do not try to reassure her with falsehoods. Young children are sometimes led to believe that only unintelligent women are subjected to abuse (and that intelligent women extricate themselves from abusive situations before they escalate). Sometimes, children are only led to believe this because an adult wants to reassure the child that as they are ‘bright’ they will not be at risk of abuse.
This harmful attitude stays with children into adulthood and makes us less sympathetic towards victims of abuse. It is important that we are as honest with children about the facts of abuse as we can be.
A key way we can be more honest but also more helpful to children is to explain that domestic abuse is not only physical but emotional. As we know, physical abuse often only arises in a relationship after mechanisms of emotional abuse and coercive control have been in place for some time. Explaining this to children is a key way of being honest and of educating them in a way that will give them a better understanding of domestic abuse than many adults currently have. More than this, if you give children an understanding of coercive control and simply explain some of the main signifiers, this can help them to understand what abusive behaviour might look like and how to spot it early on.
There is no need to be graphic about the details of violence – just be expansive in your explanation as this is a subject children ought to learn to understand.
Help children realise that abuse is always the fault of the abuser
A child’s world – more than that of an adult – can revolve around the ideas of provocation and causes. Children tend to do things in a very reactive way. For example, they may see a child lash out at another in the playground because the other child steals their toy. They may consider the stealing child to have ‘provoked’ the child who lashes out. However, it is important children recognise that when it comes to abuse, only the abuser (and the systems upholding them) is ever at fault.
Children witnessing abuse sometimes feel that it might be their fault – it is very important that children do not internalise this and blame themselves. Additionally, abusers rarely act as though the abuse is their own fault and those with narcissistic personalities will typically blame their victim for ‘making them’ behave in an abusive manner. Many victims are gaslighted into believing they are the cause of their own abuse – so it is understandable that children witnessing abuse my identify with the abusive parent as being in the right.
Thus, dismantling all forms of victim-blaming when it comes to violence against women is crucial. We know that there are many misconceptions surrounding violence against women – with many blaming victims of sexual assault in particular dependent on their clothing and behaviour prior to the attack. But that this blaming is wrong must be impressed upon our children as much as existing prejudices were conditioned in previous generations.
Be patient with children as they process their emotions around this violence
We must be patient with children and give them time to process how they feel about violence against women and domestic abuse. We must allow them to express their feelings in whatever language they need to. And then we must help them to understand the violence they have seen or heard about.