Recovering childhood after family violence
‘When mum is being abused at home, she’s constantly in a state of alert. Her body is drained because she’s so focused on fighting this violence or staying quiet so as not to trigger the perpetrator. She’s disengaged and that takes away from her relationship with her child.’
This is how Michelle, a Children’s Worker employed by McAuley, describes the paradox that mothers and children can find themselves living with – where they may be each other’s primal source of love but are inhibited in expressing it.
An integral part of her role is considering how relationships between children and their mothers can strengthen after the threat of family violence has been removed and building confidence for trust – in themselves and others who might offer further support.
‘When women and children come to McAuley Care … they’re very scared, not knowing who to trust, really feeling alone and not safe,’ Michelle says. On top of this, mothers who have been belittled or humiliated by abusive partners ‘can internalise those ideas’, resulting in low self-esteem and feeling like they’re not capable of good parenting, so they can be disengaged from that role.
‘So the work is about helping mothers regain their sense of being capable and looking at the things they’re already doing, and reflecting back to them that they are coming from a point of strength, not from one of lacking.
‘The child also needs help to go back to the state they were in before their nervous systems got affected – before they were always in a state of fear – because that fear means they can’t function properly.’
Minimising the risk of childhood harm from family violence continuing into adulthood is important work.
Research by Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS)concludes that
- children in families with parental conflict have worse health, social and educational outcomes than children in families without it,
- social and health outcomes are worst for children where there is persistent family violence,
- there is a greater probability of impaired parenting in homes with family violence, and
- children are more likely to experience physical and verbal parental conflict after their parents have separated.
According to one of the world’s largest and most impactful studies on childhood trauma, the risk of children who have experienced it having poor outcomes as adults is extremely high.
Ten types of trauma were measured in the US study of 17,000 people, with the finding that experiencing any four elevated the risk of chronic pulmonary lung disease by 390 per cent, hepatitis by 240 per cent, depression by 460 per cent and suicide by 1,220 per cent.
In covering verbal, physical or emotional abuse by a parent or another adult in the household, or against a mother or stepmother, at least three childhood traumas identified in the study could be categorized as family violence.
Another two, covering feelings of being unprotected, unloved or in a family where members did not look out for, feel close to, or support each other, could also be considered relevant.
Thankfully, other research shows that having just one positive caring relationship can significantly improve a child’s recovery from traumatic life events, with someone who makes them feel safe and protected while growing up contributing to their resilience.
Michelle says the key to creating a sense of safety is in providing an environment where conversations evoke trust and activities foster expression, understanding and connections.
‘Children don’t have a way to express themselves as adults do; we have to give them a voice in the way that works for them.’
‘We work on mindfulness and reconnecting with emotions. We might use strength and emotion cards and ask a child how they feel. If they say ‘’I’m feeling sad”, we tell them it’s okay to feel sad and we talk about it.’
As an example of how art therapy can work, Michelle recalls three brothers aged under six who stayed at the refuge. One brother came in and out of a session as he felt like it, and another stayed for a while and then left.
‘We can ask what’s making them feel like that, but it might just be about safety, because it’s a new space to sit here and engage with a person they don’t know,’ Michelle says.
One particular artwork became a focus for her work. It came from the brother who showed a lot of sadness in drawing prolifically, one piece after another, and not wanting the session to end.
‘The three-year old made a drawing with three flowers with thorns and he said that they were him and his brothers because they have had each other through that whole experience; it showed resilience because they fought through that with him,’ Michelle says.
Including mothers in children’s sessions fosters understanding and encourages reconnection. ‘It’s very empathetic work because (mums) realise how much they’ve missed having experiences with their child because they didn’t have the capacity cognitively and emotionally to be fully there with the child because of the family violence.’
In the case of the three boys, their mother had been insecure about her parenting skills, but Michelle was able to point out how kind and protective the brothers were of each other, complimenting each other and being supportive during play and art sessions.
Alternately, ‘if a child seems to be spoilt or annoying to their mother, we can sometimes help her to look at the behaviour of the child and look at reasons behind it … so they can potentially react in a different way because of that understanding,’ Michelle says.
‘A large part of a mother’s role is parenting and if you’re not there for children with parenting skills, then that child could repeat what they know (of family violence).
‘At the end of the day, it’s about intergenerational trauma, so we have to be aware of that trauma and not pass it through the next generation.’
McAuley is unusual in welcoming children up to the age of 18 into its refuges, with research showing adolescents are a particularly vulnerable group at risk of rough sleeping and homelessness in trying to escape family violence.
Michelle says that while teenagers show more resistance to help, greater understanding of family violence and anger towards the perpetrator and their situation than younger children, there are still ways to connect and support them.
‘We get to know them and their needs and find common interests; being heard is really important so remembering their likes and the little things can help them feel comfortable to open up and feel safe and connected.
‘It’s powerful because at the next service they go to, they might open up to another professional because you’ve shown them there’s a possibility for rebuilding trust and working with mum and that they can feel safe again.’
 Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (2018). Research summary: The impacts of domestic and family violence on children (2nd ed.; ANROWS Insights 11/2018).
 Emerging Minds, National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health, Australian National University. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs): Summary of evidence and impacts (2020). Emerging Minds, National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health, Australian National University.