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The Competent Parent: Witness to domestic violence

Headshot2011Welcome to our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Witness to Domestic Violence

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My son’s family childcare provider tells me he has been pushing other children and then laughs when she scolds him. He doesn’t sit at circle time, but she’s not as concerned about that since he’s just 2 and a half. Unfortunately he has seen pushing at home – several months ago I pressed charges against my boyfriend – his father figure – for domestic violence. “Brutus” has now completed anger management classes and is aware he has a problem with alcohol. We’re back together and things are better. However, I’m worried my son thinks it is okay to hurt people. Also, at the doctor’s office recently, the nurse told him he might trip if he didn’t get his shoelaces tied, and just to show off, he ran around the room as if to say, “I don’t have to listen to anybody.”

He’s so little, I don’t want this to grow into bigger problems.


Click here to read last week’s column on preventing temper tantrums.

Dear Mom,

Violence hurts everyone. Behavioral effects, such as your son is exhibiting, can occur for children who have seen violence in the home just the same as if they themselves were the victims. They feel unsafe, and so attack others pre-emptively. The child witness (or victim) is angry at the perpetrator and also at the victim – he needs a Mommy who is stronger than that. (If he is the victim, his feelings of helplessness can lead to depression.) The child can also be anxious because daily life has at times proven to be unpredictably dangerous. This can look like ADHD. In general, they have problems with emotions and social interactions, and don’t trust that authority figures can be counted on to know what’s best for you.

Family counseling and play therapy would help everyone.

Your son needs to see you and Brutus talk about the past violent acts under the direction of a counselor. You need to be assertive about not tolerating any more of this. Brutus needs to be sincerely apologetic. The counselor can coach you with appropriate words which you will take home and repeat often, both to each other in your son’s presence and directly to your son. At a two-year-old’s comprehension level, Mommy says, “I didn’t like it when Brutus was hurting me.” Brutus says, “I’m so sorry I hurt your Mommy. I was angry and should have found a better way to tell her.”

Play therapy involves doll play or role play in which anger, aggression, and non-violent conflict resolution are acted out repeatedly. The scenes should include the role of the police officer, social worker, or other authority figures involved in your family’s episode so your little boy understands what happened and why. The officer can say, “We cannot let anyone hurt anyone. You have to come with me.” Then the social worker tells the aggressor he has to go to a class to learn better ways to let someone know he is angry. If not clarified, your son might be left with a fear or hatred of police officers and others who are providing a service; to him, their actions look as aggressive as what went on between Brutus and Mommy.

Violence teaches a child that might makes right – either to fear others or to be aggressive. The child care provider can be a big help in your son’s recovery as well. He needs lessons to counteract what he learned from real experience at home. If at all possible, one adult should “shadow” him – no further than an arm’s length away – throughout the day. He needs very close attention to prevent him from ever hurting anyone. She can coach him around the other children – “Ask Shelby to move over so you can pass.” “Let Brady know you need that truck. Here’s another one to trade for it.” Kindness and sharing can and should be taught to all preschoolers.

Peace and security should be the foundation of family life.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at editor@chesapeakefamily.com.

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