Add To Cart

Section 2
Child Behavior Problems

Questions 2 | Test | Table of Contents

Read content below or listen to audio.
Left click audio track to Listen; Right click to "Save..." mp3

In the last section, we discussed the possibly overlooked consequences that children suffer from as the unintended victims of domestic violence. These consequences are role reversal, slowed motor development, and somatic complaints.

In this section, we will be discussing ways to help children deal with their crisis behaviors as they may enter a domestic violence shelter.

As you know, children residing in shelters have been forced to leave home with few or no belongings, at any hour of the night or day, following a violent incident. This obviously defines a crisis for a child, as their normal coping patterns and support systems, which may not have been initially healthy, are disrupted. Have you found like I have, that this disruption in the child's life can often be overlooked as a crisis event?

As you know, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of domestic violence shelters in the United States. However, not all shelters accept children, and of those shelters that do, only a small fraction offer counseling services for the children. Statistically, domestic violence shelters often have no treatment for the child as a victim and mainly focus on the battered woman. Yet, children often outnumber adult residents by a factor of two to three.

Let's look specifically at 3 Crisis Behaviors that Tony, a nine-year old living in a shelter with his mother, worked through. These 3 Crisis Behaviors, among others, are often typical of children entering a domestic violence shelter. After presenting the crisis behaviors of emotional suffering, inappropriate aggression, and hiding the problem, we will discuss three steps I took with Tony to help him through his crisis behaviors.

3 Typical Crisis Behaviors when Entering a Domestic Violence Shelter

♦ Behavior #1: Emotional Suffering
In a session, I stated to Tony, "When you came to this shelter with your mom, you had to leave your school, friends, neighbors, your home, and even your father. Do you ever feel angry or guilty about what happened?" Tony stated, "Yeah, I get angry a lot. Most of the times I love my dad, but sometimes I hate him too." Like many children of battering relationships, Tony was experiencing confusion regarding parental loyalties and ambivalence toward his father. Have you found, like I have, that children can feel both intense rage and longing toward their parents side by side? This emotional combination is one that most children, much less those from abusive homes, are not developmentally equipped to handle.

To help Tony deal with his conflicting emotions about his father, I found I needed to accept the full range of feelings that he had toward him. One minute he loved his father, and the next minute Tony's hands were clenched in frustration thinking about his father. I found in my sessions that this teetering back and forth was actually allowing Tony to reconcile his conflicting emotions. When Tony learned to accept the hate and love that he felt, he was less confused when his emotions didn't match. Have you also found that children such as Tony will swing between love and anger toward their parents? Do you allow them to freely experience these emotions?

♦ Behavior #2: Inappropriate Aggression
As you know, children of battering relationships can become passive and withdrawn, as well as destructive and aggressive. As with many children of battering relationships, Tony's initial mode of problem solving was hitting, as he did not see any alternatives. He once threw a video game controller at another boy when he lost, and he often hit other boys for playing with a toy he wanted.

As Tony began to work through his feelings about abuse with me, he would often lash out at others inappropriately. Tony's behavior became increasingly aggressive, abusive, and negative. When children begin to lash out, as with Tony, I find that I need to do two things. First, I do not tolerate the acting-out behaviors. But second, I try to lovingly enforce the rules of the shelter regarding inappropriate behavior.

♦ Behavior #3: Hiding the Problem
In addition to the crisis behaviors of emotional suffering and inappropriate aggression, I have found children will also attempt to hide the problem of abuse in their family. However, as you may know, this hiding behavior can often become much more intense as a child reaches the age of 11. Tony told me in a session that his father once told him that if he told about the abuse, the whole family would fall apart, and it would be all his fault. As a child passes the age of 11, he will often become very guarded and secretive about his family situation, and may become very protective of his mother. As you may know, the single most common injury to 14-year-old boys results from their attempts to intervene in battering situations between their mother and the abuser.

3-Step Technique for Helping Your Client Through Crisis Behaviors
With Tony, I followed 3 steps to help him through his crisis behaviors of emotional suffering, inappropriate aggression, and hiding the problem, as he entered the shelter. As I describe these, compare them to what you would do with your Tony.

♦ #1. Spend Time. As you know, crisis workers may have only a short time to spend with an abused child. The mother may return home the next morning. Usually, the time is spent focusing on providing the mother with information regarding resources, etc. However, with Tony, I made a point to spend time with him, even though it was only a few minutes. I wanted to show him that I noticed him, and that I cared. Do you agree that these children need to feel seen and understood?

♦ #2. Name feelings. I have found that children of domestic violence often feel emotions they are unable to express. As you know, they might be too young to define the feelings or too scared to express them. In my sessions with Tony, I felt that he was very frightened. Due to the fact that Tony stared stoically at the ground, I felt most probably that Tony's fear may have been unacceptable or unsafe for him to express. I stated to Tony, "What you are telling me seems like it must have been very frightening for you. Were you scared? I think I would be scared if I were you."

♦ #3. Reinforce. I, like you, have found that children of domestic violence will often feel that they have done something bad by revealing the abuse at home. After Tony first told me how he witnessed his father holding his mother's hand on the stove burner, I noticed he began acting guilty and ashamed. I stated to Tony, "I know it's really hard to talk about these kinds of things, but I'm proud of you for telling me. It's much better to tell an adult you can trust than to hold it all inside." I also assured Tony that he had not burdened me by telling me about the abuse, nor was he being disloyal to his parents.

Are you currently treating a child like Tony who is suffering from the crisis behaviors of emotional suffering, inappropriate aggression, and hiding the problem that were discussed in this section? Would these three steps of spending time, naming feelings, and reinforcing help him to deal with his crisis?

In the next section, we will discuss a group treatment that can address these issues and help the children to cope with their situation.
Reviewed 2023

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Harman, J. J., Kruk, E., & Hines, D. A. (2018). Parental alienating behaviors: An unacknowledged form of family violence. Psychological Bulletin, 144(12), 1275–1299.

Kennedy, A. C., Bybee, D., Sullivan, C. M., & Greeson, M. (2010). The impact of family and community violence on children’s depression trajectories: Examining the interactions of violence exposure, family social support, and gender. Journal of Family Psychology, 24(2), 197–207.

Renner, L. M., & Boel-Studt, S. (2017). Physical family violence and externalizing and internalizing behaviors among children and adolescents. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 87(4), 474–486.

Skinner, L., Gavidia-Payne, S., Brown, S., & Giallo, R. (2019). Mechanisms underlying exposure to partner violence and children’s emotional-behavioral difficulties. Journal of Family Psychology, 33(6), 730–741.

Veira, Y., Finger, B., Schuetze, P., Colder, C. R., Godleski, S., & Eiden, R. D. (2014). Child behavior problems: Role of cocaine use, parenting, and child exposure to violence. Psychology of Violence, 4(3), 266–280. 

Walker, A., Lyall, K., Silva, D., Craigie, G., Mayshak, R., Costa, B., Hyder, S., & Bentley, A. (2020). Male victims of female-perpetrated intimate partner violence, help-seeking, and reporting behaviors: A qualitative study. Psychology of Men & Masculinities, 21(2), 213–223.

What change often occurs in a child of a battering relationship once he reaches the age of eleven? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

Section 3
Table of Contents