Talking to children about domestic abuse

Some parents mistakenly believe that talking to children about a serious situation such as domestic abuse or addiction will either overwhelm or scare children. In fact, not talking about the situation leaves children defenceless and often more afraid because they do not understand what has happened or why.

Talk to your children openly and honestly

Give them age-appropriate explanations and information. Children usually feel a great sense of relief when they are allowed to talk about the situation. Children also need to know that they can talk about their feelings and ask questions without being scared of making things worse or getting into trouble. 

Educating children helps them:

  • understand the situation is not something they can influence or control
  • identify dysfunctional behaviour
  • increase the likelihood that they will not repeat the behaviour in their own lives
  • build skills instead of feeling afraid
  • feel empowered instead of helpless.

Educate your children about the problem

Along with supporting children’s feelings it is vital that you educate them about the problem. Help children keep safe by teaching them when and how to call for emergency help, how to find and approach a safe adult when there is a crisis and how to recognise and avoid unsafe situations.

If you are unsure of what to say to your children, seek out professional support or guidance from organisations such as Women's Aid or MALE.

Talk about the problem not the person

While it may be challenging at times, avoid making statements that criticise or condemn the other parent. Help your child to understand the dynamics of the issue, abuse or addiction in a way they can understand. If it is helpful, seek out resources for children such as books or educational leaflets that will help to explain the issues.

Children need to know that their safety takes priority over everything else. Let them know that the destructive behaviour is not appropriate and that you hope in the future their other parent will be able to make better choices.

Reinforce that what has happened is not their fault

Many children in difficult situations feel guilty or responsible for what has happened in the family. Make sure your children know that the situation is not their fault and that they cannot change their other parent’s behaviour. It is also helpful to let children know that no matter how much they may hope or wish, the other parent is the only one who can change the situation.

Inform your children about how life will change for now

When domestic abuse or addiction issues are involved, the time spent by the child with the other parent may need to be suspended or supervised. If this occurs, talk to your children in an age-appropriate way. Let them know in clear terms when and how they will see their other parent. If spending time together is not possible, be sure to support your child’s feelings. It is normal for a child to have mixed feelings about not seeing the other parent. While they may truly appreciate being in a safer situation, they may also have difficulty letting go of the wish that everything could be okay.

Provide children with a stable and consistent environment

Children who live with domestic abuse or addiction experience very chaotic and unpredictable lives. Although the process of divorce can bring even more changes to a family, do what you can to create a consistent, predictable and peaceful home environment for your children. Children can actually make a successful adjustment and heal from the past with the support of one consistent, loving, stable parent in their lives.

Seek support for both you and your children

Healing for families who have dealt with these issues takes time. Be sure that you seek support for yourself, as well as, your children. While reaching out to others can be hard to do, it is an important part of making life better for your family.