Rebuilding the bonds with children

mum_hugs_boyBy Nadine, a children’s counsellor at Women’s Health West

I work with children who have seen or heard family violence. Sometimes they may have helped to clean up after, or helped defend their mothers or carers against violence. Their pets may have been harmed, or toys destroyed or left behind if they’ve had to flee.

Some children have been directly physically abused. They can become withdrawn, act like parents themselves, or act out. For children displaying their distress by acting out aggressively, relationships can become increasingly difficult; a mother may find her child’s behaviour reminiscent of the violence she has experienced.  A mother’s parenting is nearly always undermined by family violence, and her relationships with her children affected.

Let me share with you the abridged therapeutic adventures of a six-year-old boy I worked with during our children’s counselling sessions. We’ll call him ‘Emmett’, but it’s not his real name.

At school Emmett was aggressively targeting girls. He was having trouble making and keeping friends due to his delayed social skills. He was still wetting his pants. In the classroom, his capacity to sit still in order to listen, learn and respond, was very limited.

At home Emmett and his sister fought vicious fights, often resulting in injury. They found it difficult to tolerate sharing the attention of their mother. Emmett would often lash out at her, physically and verbally.

When I first met Emmett he was viewed by some people in his world as a ‘very naughty boy’.

BUT Emmett had experienced significant family violence his entire life. Emmett was unsure of trusting others, and had little experience of feeling safe. His trauma was relational, and this is where the repair needed to start. Emmett’s mother had fled the violence so he and his siblings were safe.

In the course of our work together Emmett tested me to see if I was trustworthy. We played and made art, the natural language of children which enables them to make sense of their experiences. I followed his lead.

The protagonists in his work were always alone and in danger, always losing the ‘war’! Emmett was devastated about leaving his toys behind when the family fled, and felt this was somehow further punishment for being a ‘bad boy’.

Choosing Positive Paths, a resource developed by Women’s Health West and Berry Street, outlines some connection focused activities I might use as a guide when working with mothers to rebuild their relationships with their children following family violence.

It focuses on mothers and carers being the most important people in moving this process forward. The simple language used in Choosing Positive Paths makes the information easy to understand, and the daunting task of repairing a relationship a little more tangible: Play with your child. Be curious about your child’s thoughts and feelings. Catch them behaving well! Talk to them in age appropriate language about the tough stuff that has happened.

Emmett’s mother came to understand that her son’s attacks on her were not personal, but rather the kind of behaviour that had been modelled in the home previously. She began to use the motto of ‘ALL feelings are okay, but not all behaviours are okay’. She practiced acknowledging her children’s emotions. Emmett’s mother was eventually able to talk with Emmett about the conflicting feelings that came up for him in relation to his father: ‘I love him, but he was scary sometimes. I miss him, BUT I don’t miss the scariness’.

Emmett had practiced these themes in the safety of the counselling room, and Emmett’s mother and I had practiced together too, using similar language to that contained in Choosing Positive Paths. A resource like this can provide mums with simple suggestions and information prior to engaging with counselling, or in between counselling sessions.

It’s child focused. It’s trauma informed.

Emmett’s protagonists began to gather armies so he was no longer alone; the wars were being won, and some of the heroes were women! Eventually the wars stopped all together (inside the therapy room and outside at school and home). Normal sibling rivalry settled in between Emmett and his sister.

And while it wasn’t all happily ever after in Emmett’s family, enough understanding and hope had been gained to shift things for the better between mother and child.

This is an edited version of a speech Nadine presented at the launch of the Choosing Positive Paths resource at Parliament House in December 2016. The resource was officially launched by the Hon Jenny Mikakos MP, Minister for Families and Children.

Choosing Positive Paths is a resource developed for mothers, carers and other protective parents to support children affected by family violence. You can order or download here.

Find out more information about WHW Children’s Counselling services: http://whwest.org.au/resource/childrens-counselling-service/

Illustration by Isis and Pluto