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Children Affected by Domestic Violence

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October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. We normally find that our main focus lands on those enduring the abuse of their partners – however, as our annual report highlights, there’s often secondary trauma and abuse inflicted on children who witness abusive relationships.

WCA Communications sat down with Jenny Richards, LMSW, to talk about the impact of secondary trauma on children. Below is a paraphrased excerpt of their conversation. Jenny is one of six master’s level full-time clinicians that sees hundreds of clients a year, some of those clients are children.

Jenny works primarily with children who have witnessed their parents’ abusive relationship. She utilizes play therapy as a means to help children cope and unlock their emotional intelligence – which may be lacking regular development. This work is so important as half of children who witness abuse when they’re young are twice as likely be in abusive relationships as adults.

WCA Communications (WCAC): What is secondary or vicarious trauma? What does it look like in children?

Jenny Richards (JR): Many times children witness the violence that occurs within the abusive relationship and experience the aftermath of the abuse – and are not always directly being abused. This is secondary trauma, and can affect them greatly. They can be on alert and tense. They can have various kinds of behaviors, sometimes children act out aggressively or potentially they shut down emotionally and tend to be the quiet and isolated kiddo on the playground. Their ability to express their emotion in a healthy manner can be stunted because of the abuse. Sometimes, they may fear showing any emotion at all because of the abuse they’ve witnessed.

WCAC: What type of intervention do you use when a child is unable to express their feelings?

JR: Kiddos can struggle to develop their emotional intelligence due to their parent’s lack of connecting with their own emotions. Lots of work I do with younger children is developing ways to express emotion in a healthy way – usually through play therapy techniques.

WCAC: What exactly does play therapy consist of?

JR: Play therapy gives kiddos a place to process, where they are seen and heard by the therapist. When playing, children can express thoughts and feelings that might otherwise remain hidden. There are two variations of play therapy I use. Child centered with younger kiddos – this allows children to be the director of their play in the play room and process whatever it is they need to. I use directive play therapy as well with all ages. This is when specific interventions are used in addressing cognitive, behavioral, and emotional challenges.  One intervention could consist of naming different emotions and coming up with ways to cope with that specific emotion.  This helps kiddos begin to identify and cope with their emotions in a healthy way.

WCAC: Why is this type of intervention so important?

JR: Neuroplasticity, or the ability for the brain to rewire itself, shows us that hope is possible. These kiddos can grow up to have loving and beautiful relationships. This type of intervention shows us that there’s always hope for developing safe and effective ways to deal with their emotions.

The efforts put forth by Jenny and the rest of the clinicians at the WCA is so important. It’s their efforts coupled with the efforts of all our supporters that helps us continue to “break the cycle” of domestic abuse and sexual assault by helping survivors and children of survivors heal in a constructive and loving environment.

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