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Lucy Stevens - 12th April 2021
A high proportion of children who are looked after by foster carers have witnessed some degree of domestic abuse. Exposure to domestic violence is one of the main factors leading to social care involvement in the lives of children and we have seen incidences of domestic abuse increase over the last year during the Covid pandemic.
What is domestic abuse?
The term domestic abuse covers a range of behaviours which are at their root violent, threatening, controlling or coercive. Often domestic abuse occurs between parents, partners, ex-partners or family members. It can also occur between children and includes:
- Physical abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Threatening behaviour
- Sexual abuse
- Financial control
- Coercion and controlling behaviour
- Forced marriage
- Honour based violence
- Online or text/ non face to face abuse
How does domestic violence affect children?
Foster carers know first hand what the research into domestic abuse and its effect on children demonstrates. Children who have been subjected to domestic abuse can suffer long term ill-effects and harm.
This will manifest in different ways depending on the age, gender, personality of the child but may include:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Wetting the bed
- Anger and aggression
- Becoming withdrawn/dissociation
- Physical ailments: stomach aches, headaches or complaining of vague physical symptoms
- Controlling behaviours/ a need to be in control
- Difficulty forming healthy relationships/friendships
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Self harm
- Substance abuse
- Impact on education and ability to learn
- Easily startled
- Risky behaviours
- A higher risk of Gang association/Child Sexual Exploitation/Child Criminal Exploitation
How do Foster Carers support children who have experienced domestic abuse?
Safety and security.
The vast majority of children in foster care will have complex emotions about their birth families and the loss and trauma they have suffered. Helping children to overcome shame and grief is one of the most important things that foster carers can do. It may take children a good deal of time to trust you enough to talk about their experiences but when they do, it is important to respond with patience, empathy and understanding. Children who have experienced violence and abuse in the home need a safe space to process their trauma and to make sense of the feelings it leaves them with. Foster carers need to be emotionally available and consistent to help children feel safe and secure. They will need a calm and measured response and will be looking to you to provide that.
Keep sight of the child.
When children are distressed, their behaviour can be confusing and distressing. Being able to contextualise behaviour and examine it is key. Remember to keep sight of the frightened child. It may be that children will need to be immersed in basic activities and caring techniques used for younger children as you seek to fill the developmental gaps that a domestically abusive home life might have created. For older children, this can mean going back to basics and doing activities that ground and nurture children, such as baking, gardening, painting etc.
Hear their voice. Be their voice.
Children need their foster carers to advocate for them. When the time is right, children may benefit from counselling or therapy to help them make sense of their emotions. Having a trusting relationship with a foster carer can free children to explore their experiences safely and can really help them to engage well with therapeutic provision.
A new normal.
For many children, domestic abuse is a normal part of everyday life. It will take them time to realise that abuse is not normal. Understanding how healthy families operate will come when it is modelled to them. This may be confusing and difficult to accept for many children but it is vital in helping children break cycles of domestic abuse and supports them in making informed decisions when it comes to friendships and relationships. Foster carers need to be intentional and aware that they are being watched for their reactions and the way they interact with others. This is not always easy but it is a powerful tool that foster carers have to help children heal.
Keep sight of yourself.
It is important that carers are robust and resilient. You will need lots of support from your fostering provider. They should offer you regular supervision and discuss how you are, what’s working well and what you need help with. They should help you to advocate for the needs of the child and ensure that you are supported and informed. They should offer additional training and insight where you need it.
It is also important to invest in your own care. This is to ensure your own resilience and well-being but is also important in teaching resilience to the children and young people in your care.
For more information on domestic abuse and the impact it has on children and young people, you may want to read this article.
If you would like to make a difference in the lives of children who have suffered domestic abuse and would like to know more about fostering, we are holding virtual information sessions. Just book an appointment with us by clicking here.