Supporting Child Survivors: Connection, Consistency & Creativity
Far too often when discussing family violence, the terms “witnessed” or “exposed to” are used to refer to children’s lived experiences. This is not only inaccurate, but it also belittles the child’s reality. Children living with and/or being parented by a perpetrator of coercive control are directly victimized. They are likely to be physically and/or psychologically targeted; and, even if they are spared direct wrath, there is emotional harm done when a parent they love is abused.
As adults who work with children, regardless of context, there is a 100% chance we are working with at least one child victim of DV/FV whether or not it has been disclosed. We encounter these wonderful little beings in our classrooms, our therapy offices, our art studios, our dojos, on our sports teams, and in every other context in which our paths cross. We know them, care about them and want to support them, yet we often focus solely on behaviors and not on the pain underneath driving those behaviors. We over-label, over-diagnose and even sometimes overmedicate them in attempts to resolve what has been identified as concerning. We are professionals who want solutions, and this well-intended goal often complicates things. Most often, what these children need is to be seen, heard and validated.
It is up to us as adults to create an environment where children feel safe enough to share with us who they are. We must demonstrate that we are worthy of their trust. The initial key to this is connection. When introduced to kiddos, be yourself. Child victims and survivors of DV/FV have been forced to learn to read people instantaneously and accurately for their own protection. Anything short of full authenticity will signal to them that something is off, and they will be unable to trust you, even if they cannot vocalize why.
Once we establish connection, it is important to be consistent. Consistency says to children “We are reliable.” This signals to them that we are willing and able to keep our word. This is the beginning of trust. Over time, they will begin to see you as an authentic, predictable and safe resource for them. We allow for this to further develop and grow by validating exactly who the children are. We get to know them and what they like and dislike. We empathize with their struggles and encourage their gifts. Every single child has gifts and talents, but many do not know what they are or have never been celebrated for having them. Allowing them to share those and assisting them in finding the ones not yet discovered opens the process in ways that are creative and collaborative.
Willingness to utilize creativity in work with children is paramount to validating their experiences, hopes and fears. Child victims and survivors of DV/FV may have lived through similar experiences, but that does not equate to identical feelings about or expressions of those experiences. Explore with them. Inquire about them. Share your own likes and dislikes (appropriately) with them. And once there is a greater understanding of what they enjoy, include that in the support process. Thinking outside of the box is not nearly enough, we must remove the box all together and collaboratively build a process that works for the children we wish to support.
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