Interventions for Children Exposed to Domestic Violence: Core Principles

Safety First
The first and most important intervention for children is to address the issues of safety for the family. This usually involves working with the victim of violence to discuss the options she/he might consider to increase safety. Legal advocacy, shelters, and domestic violence service agencies are good resources for addressing the challenges of safety. The first step toward helping the child is seeing that the abused parent/caregiver is safe; another essential step is in assisting older children and adolescents in planning for their safety. Helping children and teens to develop specific strategies for keeping safe gives them a sense of control so that they feel less vulnerable.

Child and Family Therapies
There are a wide variety of counseling and mental health interventions available to families affected by domestic violence. Usually, families need more than therapy; they need case management and advocacy to assist the victim of violence in navigating the legal system, and in obtaining the resources and support the adult victim needs to maintain safety and security for herself/himself and the children. It is important that mental health treatment be provided in a context of comprehensive support for the children and their nonoffending parent.

For children, interventions include groups, individual therapy, and dyadic treatment with their nonoffending parent. An essential component of intervention with all children is the priority of supporting and strengthening the relationship between the nonoffending parent and the child. For most children, a strong relationship with a parent is a key factor in helping a child heal from the effects of domestic violence. The choice of treatment depends on the child's age, the nature and severity of the traumatic reaction, the circumstances of the family, and the availability of other supports. In either a group or an individual format, treatment can provide children and their caregivers with important information about domestic violence and common childhood reactions, which can help normalize their experience and decrease their sense of isolation. 

Children may have cognitive

distortions or misunderstandings

  about what has happened or why it

happened such as blaming

  themselves, blaming the victim,

and blaming police or other

  authorities who attempt to intervene.

Many shelters and domestic violence service agencies offer psychoeducational and/or support groups for children. These groups are important tools in helping children to stabilize and to recognize that they are not alone with their worries and fears. Mental health treatment can give children/adolescents a chance talk about and make sense of their experiences in the presence of a caring and neutral counselor. Children may have cognitive distortions or misunderstandings about what has happened or why it happened such as blaming themselves, blaming the victim, and blaming police or other authorities who attempt to intervene. Children often feel torn between their parents or confused by conflicted feelings of love for and fear of their violent parent. A therapist works with the child to correct these misconceptions and to lessen the child's conflicts. For many children, it is very helpful to create a "trauma narrative," in which he/she makes a complete account of what has happened. This allows the child and therapist to understand in more detail what exactly the child experienced as well as which elements of the experience are most disturbing, and why, and to address specific misunderstandings as they are identified.

For victims, interventions include support groups and individual counseling offered through domestic violence service agencies and shelters (Sullivan & Gillum, 2001). A variety of intervention programs for batterers are available, some of which serve voluntary clients and others that are mandated through the criminal justice system (Saunders & Hamill, 2003).

Generally, it is not considered appropriate to engage victims and abusers in couples or family treatment because it may not be safe for the victim or children to participate honestly in the treatment. There is an evolving interest among child-focused therapists to involve the offending parent in the treatment of children when it is safe and clinically appropriate to do so. Because children may maintain strong psychological ties (and, in many cases, direct access) to their offending parents, involving them in the therapeutic treatment provides an opportunity to directly address the impact of the violence on the child and family. An important component of this work is the offender's acknowledgment of the abuse, commitment to abstain from abuse, and willingness to address this issue honestly and openly within the family (Groves, Van Horn, & Lieberman, 2006).