How to teach children violence is wrong when one parent is abusing the other

It’s a complicated situation: teaching your children violence isn’t right while they simultaneously witness, or have witnessed, domestic abuse between their parents. Judi Nelson, coordinator of education and outreach at the Sojourner Project, provided some insight. Do children living in homes where domestic abuse is present know that the behavior they’re seeing is wrong?

Nelson: Children who have witnessed or experienced abuse are far more certain than anyone else that violence is wrong. There may be confusion, however, about what causes abuse and how to stop it. How are children affected by domestic abuse?

Nelson: Children living with abusers are impacted in myriad ways—the body of research on this topic is huge, and understanding how individual children are affected is key in teaching them about violence. Of course, stages of development play a role in teaching about violence. But a common factor for kids of all ages is that they learn from what they see. What we tell them is only relevant if it matches up with what their experiences tell them. If kids are experiencing violence, they know the downsides—it scares, hurts and alienates others … and the stronger person gets what they want. Kids are also learning what is acceptable treatment of others. How does witnessing consequences for violence translate to children?

Nelson: When kids see consequences for abusive behavior or violence against others, they learn that in addition to altruistic reasons for civilized behavior, aka, violence is bad for everyone, there are practical considerations—violence is bad for me. For example, Dad getting arrested and ordered to stay away from the family after attacking Mom or the kids is a highly teachable moment. It could easily deteriorate into feelings of sympathy for poor dad, but can be explained to children that this is what happens when you act violently. Violence is a choice and that choice is solely the abuser’s. No one else caused it, controlled it or deserved it. How do you, as a parent, relay that message to your kids?

Nelson: It should not be shrouded in a cloak of insults and putdowns, but rather validation and clarity. For example, say things like, ‘I know you love your dad, but this behavior is against the law, and when you choose to act this way, you get arrested and go to jail.’ The message that violence is bad is pretty clear; you can now move on to the idea that hurting others and being a bully is wrong. For example, ‘How we respond to violence is a value of our family. We don’t put our hands on each other in this family. We treat each other with kindness and respect.’ And then, treat your children that way, allowing them to create their own boundaries and coping skills, and honoring those. What about the survivors who don’t call the police or who stay in the relationship?

Nelson: I don’t want to imply that they can’t be good mothers, or have strong relationships with their children—but they will have [additional] challenges. I definitely don’t want to imply that unless kids see the abuser get consequences, they can’t get the message that violence is wrong and unacceptable. But modeling is important. So is the community’s response to violence. Kids are very much affected by the social orb outside of the family. To be treated with respect and kindness by other adults in their lives, to have clear messages in schools that violence is not tolerated, that the community provides services and support to those in domestic violence situations—these are powerful elements in teaching children that violence is wrong, that no one deserves abuse and that there is safety and understanding available in their community. Kids who witness violence are often times more susceptible to being involved in violent behavior as adults. If a survivor doesn’t escape, and a child grows up witnessing or experiencing abuse, what can be done by the non-abusive parent to help their child avoid a similar fate?

Nelson:Kids who witness violence are undoubtedly affected by it; I am not sure they are necessarily more “susceptible” to it as adults—we are all imprinted by our upbringing, but many variables affect and counteract that imprinting—many children who grew up in violent families do not resort to violence in personal relationships, while many children who did not witness battering as children, practice it liberally in all kinds of ways as adults. We are also imprinted through media, religion, popular culture—we are given some very mixed messages about love, sex, violence and relationships. We all develop coping skills and resilience, often by happenstance. What is probably most important for children raised in a home where their mothers (and perhaps siblings and themselves) are battered, is healing from the violence. A close relationship with the non-abusive parent (statistically, most often the mother), safety (and safety planning), strong relationships with siblings, and connections to other supportive, nurturing adults, fosters resilience and healing. Children should have opportunities to talk about the abuse and express their feelings; they should receive information about abuse—especially that it is not the victim’s or the children’s fault. I think this can get dicey—the non-abusing spouse should avoid putting down the other parent, as they are trying to instill the idea that the abuser’s behavior is unacceptable. Children should not be put in a position of defending the other parent, or feeling defensive—they will most likely retain feelings of love for the abusive parent, while simultaneously hating the abuse, and the disruption and fear the abuser has caused everyone in the family (and maybe beyond). This dichotomy can be confusing, frustrating and upsetting to children (or, really, anyone). While there is no pat system for doing it and every child and case is different, it is important to help children accept what is going on, understand it and deal with it.. Children are just as impacted by the positive, loving and nurturing figures in their lives as they are by the bad ones—try to make sure that children are exposed to positive people and messages. Be those people for kids when you can. Any final advice?

Nelson: Truly teaching children about violence, regardless of their upbringing, has to be the work of ‘the village.’ Everyone has a role and responsibility in empowering children and keeping them safe. Women living with violence are hard-pressed to give their children positive messages, when their daily lives are telling another story. Please remember, [a survivor] is probably doing the best [he or she] can. The optimal way to help kids in this situation, and to teach them about violence, is to make sure there’s an abundance of help for their abused parent and safe people and places they can go to in their communities. We can each be those people who are really there for all the children in our lives.

Read more articles about helping kids deal with domestic violence in our Children and Teens section.