Making room for a child’s experience is a powerful tool for maintaining a healthy environ-ment in good times as well as in unsafe, changing or challenging situations.
When there is no safe space, either for a child, the family or the community surrounding a child, here’s a list of some of the ways children perceive the experience.
(Note: “Mother”, “dad”, “he”, and “she” are interchangeable in this list –abusers and targets can be of any gender.)
• Baby may be born prematurely due to mother’s stress during pregnancy.
• Baby may be unable to nurse, due to mother’s stress, depression or lack of resources.
• Babies and older children need to meet unrealistic expectations, such as keeping quiet during play or sleeping through the night.
• Children may be cared for by older siblings because mother is depressed, injured or numb.
• Children may be subjected to constant tension and fear in the home. The child’s brain registers this as “normal” and adapts accordingly.
• Children may be fed only when the controlling parent is not home or has al-ready eaten.
• Children may receive intermittent medical care, depending on an abuser’s determination of need and the family’s ability to hide what is happening in the home environment (no bruises, child is trusted not to talk).
• Children’s play dates, birthday parties, movies or vacations may be canceled at the abuser’s whim, often to punish someone for breaking rules or failing to meet impossible conditions.
• Father is cold to the children around the controlling parent to prevent her from becoming jealous.
• Mother becomes a strict disciplinarian to protect children from abuser’s yell-ing, degradation or other forms of punishment.
• Children need to grow up fast and be perfect to stay under the abuser’s radar. There can be no accidents like wetting the bed or spilling things.
• Children worry, especially at night, about what could be happening between parents.
• Children are distracted at school by memories and fears.
• Children lie to relatives, caregivers, teachers and friends’ parents about what things are really like at home.
• One or both parents lie to the children to minimize tension and protect them, which leaves them isolated, confused and unable to trust their own perceptions.
• Children may experience sudden “vacations” or moving with minimal expla-nations that make no sense: “We need to give dad some space” or “Don’t ask questions, just pack a suitcase.”
• Dad may move out with no explanation.
• Mom may disappear with children being told “Mom doesn’t care about you anymore.”
• Children may try to step between parents who are fighting.
• Children may hide in a closet alone or with siblings while parents are fighting, or while the abuser is yelling and throwing things.
• Children may have to call the police or run to neighbors for help.
This list, written from a child’s-eye view, does not tell you how a particular child will respond outwardly. Some children withdraw, some break down, some become irritable, some show physical symptoms, and some seem to “grow up fast,” stepping into adult roles and responsibilities beyond their years. Some are quiet at home and excel at school and sports, to the delight of parents and teachers.
Underneath all these ways of coping, the stress that provoked them remains unnoticed and unrelieved.
Read the 20-page series “Helping Children Cope…” which includes this page. Download the free PDF to read, print, and distribute.