Helping Families Navigate Domestic Violence
When it comes to helping families stay safe, resilient, and strong, domestic violence is one of the most serious and complex challenges FamilyWise partners with parents and kids to navigate.
Its effects are far-reaching for both caregivers and children, as are the ways it can cause trauma. As victims of domestic violence, parents experience trauma that affects their parenting skills. Often, they will have blunted emotions, in turn making them emotionally unresponsive to their kids. In some cases, a mom will worry that their child will grow up to be abusive themselves, leading to what FamilyWise Executive Director Ann Gaasch calls “mirror trauma” in parent and child.
“How terrifying for a son or daughter when your own mom is scared of you when you’re angry,” she says. “At a basic level it makes it hard for the family to regulate emotions and build relationships when no one feels safe.”
Across our programs, FamilyWise staff see families come to us when there is domestic violence between parents, or when children themselves have been the victims. Further, the trauma of witnessing violence among family members is an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) and a form of abuse in itself.
A nuanced approach to building a safe space
Whatever its form, working with families experiencing domestic violence requires a nuanced approach, especially in FamilyWise’s Supervised Parenting program, where domestic violence is often a referring factor. As we try to create positive spaces for families to be together, we must do so while ensuring everyone’s sense of safety when interacting with the family member who committed the violence.
“A most basic right is to have a relationship with your child when it can be done safely,” says FamilyWise Executive Director Ann Gaasch. “We need to assume that people can grow and change and succeed, and seeing your kids might just be the thing that motivates you to do that.”
“Sometimes it takes parents losing everything like their family to realize that they need to change,” adds Supervised Parenting Monitor Jocelyn Chavez.
“Our setting is a safe place for the child to work on that relationship with an abusive parent,” says Supervised Parenting Manager Miriam Maples. “I think kids in those situations need to feel some sense of control, so we let them take the lead on how they interact with visiting parents. If they’re not comfortable with a face-to-face visit, we might start with a virtual visit, helping kids become more comfortable before reintroducing them in person.”
Along with managing the setting to make families feel most comfortable, FamilyWise staff rely on a range of other tools to help parents and kids avoid conflict. “There’s a lot we can do,” shares Ann. “I think about men who’ve been abusive, they often don’t even identify their feelings, don’t have a choice about how to express. We can teach better communications skills, emotional regulation, and help them find healthy ways to express feelings and address core hurts and trauma. Often they’re acting out of a wound to their own self when they lash out at others. Giving people tools to address that is really important.”
“Kids deserve to be loved and safely cared for—and parents do too”
While it may be prevalent among Supervised Parenting families, staff members work through domestic violence situations with participants across FamilyWise programs.
Lead Family Specialist Mi Ja, who supports parents and children through our In-Home Parenting and Parent Support Outreach Programs, shares the importance of building a healthy setting of support and self-empowerment around families. “It’s important to set up healthy boundaries, a healthy environment, and a healthy support network,” says Mi Ja. “Kids deserve to be loved and safely cared for—and parents do too. [We encourage] both self-respect and self-advocacy for both children and parents.”
Coming together with plans of care
Ann echoes the importance of self-advocacy when recalling one child’s experience in our High Fidelity Wraparound Program. Having experienced a lot of abuse outside of school, the young man was especially sensitive about being touched on the shoulder in the classroom. Every time a teacher tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention, he would grow agitated and be removed from class. His mother and Wrap team rallied around his needs, “doing a lot of work to get school staff to see [his reaction] was due to trauma and not his fault,” says Ann.
They advocated for the school to take a different approach when engaging the child, encouraging staff to talk to him and look him in the eye rather than touching. After four months their persistence paid off, and the young man developed a healthier relationship with school staff. The experience, Ann says, was a good example of asking—and answering—the question: “How do we all come together with plans of care that help kids feel safe and grow and heal?”
Other strategies include modeling positive communication for families that may be used to confrontation and tension in their relationships. Chief Program Officer Anna VonRueden shares that families exposed to domestic violence “become used to a crisis way of life. We can help them by modeling different interactions and conversations and responses, allowing them to see different patterns of behavior.”
Ultimately, as with all our work, FamilyWise looks to create a non-judgmental safe space where parents can focus on their strengths and rebuild healthy relationships. As Mi Ja puts it, “To support these children, we need to support the parents so that parents can build that stronger foundation to support their children.”