Transcript for
Family violence and child-aware practice – part 1

Runtime 00:28:18
Released 9/5/20

Narrator [00:00:02] Welcome to the Emerging Minds podcast.

Host Chris Dolman [00:00:08] Hello, I’m Chris Dolman and today you will be hearing from experienced family violence practitioners and other leaders in the field to discuss the topic of family and domestic violence and child aware practise. We will highlight a number of things during this podcast. I will be looking at the climate of fear that children live within a context of family and domestic violence, the impact of family and domestic violence on children, including its impact on the mother child relationship. Some of the practise dilemmas that accompany conversations with mothers about their children’s well-being in a context of family domestic violence and some ways of having conversations with mothers that respond to these dilemmas. This podcast is the first of two we will be presenting around this topic because there’s a lot to discuss and we’re only just getting started. We’re hearing first from Sarah Wendt, professor of social work at Flinders University.

Sarah Wendt [00:00:57] I think when we’re wanting to understand domestic and family violence and we have those core concepts of coercive control, intimidation, fear, power, one has to remember that children are also experiencing that. And so often what comes to mind for me is imagine yourself living in a climate of fear and what that does to yourself. And so think about children living in a climate of fear. And so that lens then gives us another way of looking at how domestic and family violence impacts on children. So how does it impact on their development? How does it impact on their social wellbeing? How does it impact on their mental health? And so when you start to see children’s behaviour, often we can jump to individual explanations. We can be quick to pathologies. We can be quick to say they’re delayed. We can go to deficits very quickly. But what the domestic violence lens does, if you understand a climate of fear and what trauma does to children, it gives you a whole other lens of the environmental context in which children are living. And I think that environmental lens allows you to see things differently and it allows you as a practitioner to understand children’s behaviour differently and as soon as you centre the child I think you can start to imagine or be curious about how that child sees the world kind of put your self in the child’s shoes to kind of gain that perspective. And so this by doing that simple thing, I think it allows practitioners to maybe actually work alongside a child instead of trying to do things on behalf of or over the top of. So you kind of maybe diminishes some of that powerlessness or that kind of hierarchy in practise if you can put yourself in their shoes and walk alongside them. So I think by acknowledging the climate of fear enables you to see the world through a child’s eyes.

Chris Dolman [00:02:54] That was Sara Wendt emphasising the climate of fear that children experiencing family or domestic violence are living in. It seems an important place to start in understanding children’s experience and in working with their parents. We also spoke with experienced practitioners from Uniting Communities Specialised Family Violence Service about some of their understandings of the impact of family and domestic violence on children’s mental health and wellbeing. Here’s Erin and Phil.

Aerinn Morgan [00:03:18] Parents tell us so many things about how their children are being affected. So I’ve heard stories about how children will be afraid to leave their mother, afraid to go to school, afraid to sleep alone at night, will have nightmares, will develop feelings of anxiety and sadness. Their behaviour will be different than it normally is. They might stop eating. They might start wetting the bed. They may cry or become irritable. They may appear clingy. There’s a whole range of things that parents tell us that they’ve noticed about their children that hasn’t really concerned. And sometimes they can relate it to family violence and sometimes they can’t. They’re just noticing these changes in their children.

Philip Martin [00:04:12] The impact it has on children is very disruptive. It has them feeling unsafe and not secure. And sometimes acting out at school, the anxiety levels can increase. And they’re just the things that I notice when I’m when I’m enquiring into the impact of the violence on children, what they described by the parents. Usually the mother is noticing these things. And that’s a dilemma for her because she’s worried about that and wanting to protect these children from that violence, which is often really difficult when men are exercising a lot of parent control. So often the woman is just managing day to day to get through the day to manage her partner’s behaviour in the best way she can. And also to shield her children from that sometimes. For olderchildren, there’s often attempts to protect the parent who is experiencing the violence and the cost to them of doing that. Of almost becoming the parent for that parent and doing things like, you know, they might stay home from school or off or feign illness so that they’re there with the parent who’s experience experiencing violence to possibly limit the effect of the presence of the partner on that day who might be home from work that day. So they make a decision to stay home from school and pretend they’re sick so that there will be some sort of possibility of stopping violence that might happen, that if they weren’t there or they are very distracted at school, they can’t focus and they can often be so worried about what’s going on that they’re just kind of dreaming or looking out the window or this some some children describe it or they’re really they’re not meeting their requirements for school or they’re slipping behind the falling behind in their school or they’re, you know, sometimes for young boys when there’s conflict lash out and emulate some of the violence that they might have seen from their fathers, even though, they actually talk about really hating the way their fathers do that.

Chris Dolman [00:06:34] Aerinn and Phil’s comments have me thinking about the importance of practitioners having an understanding of the impacts of family violence on children and then drawing on this understanding when working with parents and children to be curious about the particular effects of the violence on each family they’re meeting with.

Aerinn Morgan [00:06:50] I’ve learnt many things from children directly in the way they speak of behaviours that they’re okay with or not okay with. And I guess what I’ve realised is that children pick up on a lot of incredibly good at responding to their environment and good at connecting the dots and understanding what they’re seeing. They may not fully understand what it is but children very quickly seem to grasp the ideas of safety and fairness and what’s okay and what’s not. But they also have these complex kind of dilemmas of they love their parents, usually both of them, but they don’t necessarily like all the behaviours they’re experiencing and seeing at home or by the parent when they visit their new home. Their needs are significant. And I guess it’s pretty evident that their experience of exposure to abuse and harm is often just like being in it themselves. They’ll take it up and they feel quite responsible sometimes for what’s been going on. They somehow link themselves it’s implicit or complicit in it, even if they weren’t directly the target. But they also are really clever and developed really clever skills and abilities to keep them and their siblings safe and to manage certain situations and know if it’s kind of safe to talk to someone else and not or find refuge in small spaces of their lives and are incredibly good at bouncing back from situations, which is incredibly reassuring. I guess that that’s possible. So, yeah, I’ve seen a lot of commonly used word but resilience in children that have been through incredible harm that they can get through that.

[00:08:32] That was Aerinn Morgan, Phillip Martin and Joe Allen from United Communities Specialised Family Violence Service, talking about what they’ve come to understand through meeting with children and families about how family violence affects the lives of children. Of course, violence perpetrated by a father also has significant impacts on the relationship between mothers and their children, Aerinn and Sarah discuss.

Aerinn Morgan [00:08:57] What we find is that when I’m speaking with a woman about her relationship with her children, often something that comes up very commonly is issues around how the violence is impacting on her ability to care for her children, so to parent them.

Sarah Wendt [00:09:14] It’s going to impact on Mum’s capacity, so she might be struggling and so she might be quite punitive in her discipline of her children or she might be overly protective. So she’ll be making decisions all the time shaped by living in a climate of fear. And so I think it’s important to remember that domestic and family violence does not only just impact on the adults in the family. It’ll impact on parenting and it impacts on children that are witnessing and experiencing the violence, but also the parenting that’s being affected and shaped by the violence.

Aerinn Morgan [00:09:48] It’s often affecting the bond that she has with a child, and that can be a deliberate mechanism as part of the violence and abuse that’s being perpetrated either when the parents are together or even when they leave. And so often for women, even years and years after leaving a violent relationship she might have, you know, one child, two, three and is having significant difficulties in her relationship with those children.

Chris Dolman [00:10:19] Having conversations with parents about how family violence is affecting their children is important for a number of reasons, including ensuring that children are visible in conversations with parents, as well as providing a foundation for collaborating with parents around responding to the children’s mental health and social and emotional well-being.

Aerinn Morgan [00:10:37] I don’t think I can work with people unless I collaborate with them, because otherwise I become another person, just telling a mum or a dad the best way to bring up their child or how to parent. And that’s what I think is profoundly unhelpful because there are no rule books about bringing up children. We know there are certain practises that have bad effects on children. We know violence and abuse can be potentially very damaging for children. But telling people that isn’t going to help because they actually know it. They actually know that if you’re screaming around your kids and then your child starts wetting her bed, then they know that something there is going on. And so the best way to do that is really to collaborate with them is really to work with them and alongside them to find out from them what they think is working and why and what they think is not working and why and to be exploring with them those sorts of questions. You know what they think. So we work here from a very child focussed and child inclusive way. So that means that our minds are always on where are the children in this? Where is the children’s voice in this scenario, in this experience, that doesn’t necessarily mean we will ever meet with children. But it means that we will enquire about how all this is affecting the children. But I’m very keen to do that in different ways. If I’m enquiring with men or I’m enquiring with women because I think I want to be really careful that I’m not adding to a sense of responsibility or mother blame if I’m asking women in particular about the effects this violence and abuses having on her children, if she’s in a situation where she feels that she’s unable to leave or unable to do anything to protect her child.

Chris Dolman [00:12:43] So as Aerinn highlights, these conversations are not without the challenges and dilemmas, of course. And these vary depending on the family circumstances, as well as we are talking to the father who is using violence or the mother was being subjected to violence.

Aerinn Morgan [00:12:57] For most people with children, they want to feel that they’re doing the best. That’s a very hard thing, because when you’re a parent, there’s always the sense that you’re getting it wrong and you’re not doing well enough. But when there’s violence and there’s abuse around, I think that gets amplified. It gets amplified for men in a way that shame can often come into the picture and can have them minimising their behaviour and can have them denying aspects of their behaviour that are having effects on their children. And it can have mothers feeling very ashamed that they’re the ones responsible for the effects on their children. They’re the ones responsible for their partners or ex-partners behaviour because they’re not being a good enough mother or a good enough partner. Yeah, and that’s when the whole idea of mother blame comes in and is well supported, when people will say to women still, well, why don’t you just leave? You know, why don’t you just pick up the kids and go, why don’t you stand up to him or when you call the police or why don’t you do all sorts of things that women do or don’t do because they know from past experience what’s safe and what’s not safe to do. And the best way they possibly can to keep themselves and their children safe. So, yeah, those things come into the picture a lot for people and makes it difficult for them then to disclose violence because they know that certainly out in public and through the legal system that they will be judged for that. A lot of women will say this is my fault. I should have left earlier if I’d done something to protect the children earlier than they wouldn’t be like this when what I know is that there’s very good reasons that she’s not been able to do that. And so by eliciting some of those reasons and assisting her to make a bit more meaning about why she would have stayed when other people would have told her to leave, or she’s now thinking that she could have left can get her to a position where she can start to think a bit more critically about the situation she’s been in and assign the responsibility where it’s due. That then makes it much easier for her to be then talking about the effects that she’s noticed with her child, because she can become much clearer that it’s not been her fault, it’s not been her responsibility in terms of what’s been happening, because a lot of women I talked to are used to being blamed. It’s if you’d left earlier, then your son wouldn’t be like this. You should stand up to him and then these things wouldn’t have happened. And women start to believe these things and they start to take on these stories, these ideas that they’re failures as parents. And if you have a sense that you’re a failure as a parent, the last thing you want to be talking about is some of the things that you think are wrong with your child, because you think it’s something that you’ve done and it’s your responsibility.

Chris Dolman [00:16:12] So if a practitioner is hearing from a mother that she’s blaming herself for the effects of violence on her children, what may be important is to be contextualising those reasons to make visible what she’s been up against and therefore ensuring the responsibility for the effects of the violence on her and her children is attributed to the parent perpetrating it. Megan Hughes, Executive Manager, strategic projects at Women’s Safety Services. S.A believes this is vital.

Megan Hughes [00:16:40] We have much higher expectations of parenting for mothers than we do of fathers. Really, in a sense, they’re not asked to be responsible for any of the behaviour that they’ve been using power and control, using those things in relationship and the impact that that has on families. But we expect mothers who have been exposed to violence and abuse to take complete responsibility for what’s happening to the child. So I think it’s really important in our conversations if we want to have real conversations and get to want is the impact on children. We have to share responsibility. We have to decrease the responsibility that she’s taking for that. And we need to talk about, well, what’s been the impact of violence? What have those children seen that you feel worried about? To talk to her about that this is this is damaging, but it’s not irreversible, that your relationship with those children is really important. You’ve got a lot to offer them.

Chris Dolman [00:17:56] So what else can support practitioners to have conversations with mothers about the effects of violence on their children without making them feel responsible for the violence?

[00:18:06] The focus, obviously, is always on the well-being of the child. But often women that I’ve spoken to in these situations, in DV situations have been so traumatised themselves that they need some preparation. They need some time to have their story heard so that we can start making sure that their children are safe. But if someone’s really traumatised and we know that children are potentially being traumatised as well, we’ve got to take care about the children. But we’ve got to take care about the mums as well, because otherwise they’re in no position to be able to even act on their children’s behalf, let alone their own behalf. And so it’s about caring for them, as well as ensuring that that the kids are safe. I think all all those supportive questioning about her own experience of, you know, what it’s been like for her. I think other things, too, her looking at the effects on the children, but looking at the responses that she’s made. So when she says to me, I just feel so guilty or I feel so bad that I’ve let this happen or I’ve not been able to keep my children safe, then I ask her questions about specific situations. So I’ll ask for an example of when there was a violent incident. And she might say something like, well, you know, my partner was yelling or he was punching walls. And I stood there and I did nothing. And I say, well, why? Why did you stand there and do nothing? And she’d say, Well, because I knew if I did anything, it would make things worse. And so then I’ll ask her about that as a response. You know, how did she know to stand there and do nothing, you know? How did she know that that would keep her safe, safer and the children safer if she did that, and she’ll be out to tell me from past experience that she’s learned if she does certain things, it’ll make things worse and if she does certain things, it will make it a little bit easier. It won’t stop the violence because that’s not within her ability to stop the violence. She’s not capable of doing that. But she’s looking at ways of minimising the effects of her partner’s violence on her and the children. And she does it in the maybe the tiniest of ways that she doesn’t even notice. And so I’m going to ask her about a lot of those to bring those forth so that she starts to get a picture of herself as a supportive, nurturing, caring mother in the face of all this violence and abuse.

[00:20:58] That’s Aerinn Morgan from Uniting Communities. He’s heard Aerinn emphasising an interest in understanding a mother’s own experience of her partners violence and particularly how she’s been responding to the violence. The efforts began small, noticed and unnoticed that she has made to minimise the impact of the violence on herself and her children. According to the Family Violence Practitioners, what also sits alongside this when having conversations with mothers about the effects of violence on their children is also to be having a conversation about what’s important to them as parents, the values and the hopes they hold as they parent their children.

[00:21:33] I’m asking questions about what sort of parent are they hoping to be for their child and then getting them to articulate some of their hopes for their parenting and to ask them questions like, you know, when their child gets to five years time or ten years time or when their child grows up and they look back on their mom or their dad, you know, what would they want them to be thinking, saying about their relationship with their mom or dad? And to really get them to think about, you know, how they want to be viewed as a parent by their child and how they want to be out of view themselves as a parent. The sorts of things they would like to be able to say about themselves that, you know, I was a good listener for my for my children and I was able to be patient with my children. And, you know, I spent time reading with them or any of the things that might be important to them that they see in a parenting role and to then support those ideas and to get stories about when those things have been easier to do and when they’ve been harder to do. You know, what’s got in the way of being able to be the sort of parent they want to be and when are the times when it’s been easier to be the sort of parent they want to be?

Joe Allen [00:22:58] I think women are usually pretty proud and happy to step into talking about their preferences as parents and often in hearing those stories. We then hear about the things they’re not happy with and the things that are robbing them of the kind of parenting practises they want to be using. So it might be a less direct way of hearing about their strengths and then also the things that are letting them down around them and then in hearing those stories I guess we can evaluate with them if they’re up to it and wanting that what kind of affects they’re happy or less happy. And what that means for many of that in having shared those ideas. What were your initial thoughts about what they want to see change or be different, or are they happy with if things stay the same like this for a long time? What’s at stake? And they’re kind of okay with that or not. Is he involved in wondering about this things, too, for bringing him in to her awareness all the time and that it’s not the focus is on what he’s doing.

[00:23:55] That was Aerrin and Joe from Uniting Communities. We asked Aerrin about the role of strengths based approach takes in their conversations with parents around the impact of family violence on children’s mental health and wellbeing.

Aerinn Morgan [00:24:08] I wouldn’t say that I use a strength based approach, and that may sound a bit odd for some people who would be listening to this, but I think it’s to do with when I think of the strengths based approach. I think about us identifying strengths with people. And, of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But I guess from my perspective and the way I work, I’m keen for people not to see themselves as being a particular way. So to give you an example, if I’m talking with a woman and she’s been able to get out of a violent relationship and take her children with her, and then she identifies that, that took courage to do that, then that’s good. She’s identifying that it took a lot of courage and how she was able to do that when she was feeling really frightened about what might happen. Now a strengths based approach would see her as courageous, whereas when I’m talking with her about is her ability to find courage in that instance. And so if we were to start talking about her as a courageous person, it’s an essentialising idea and it’s fraught with danger because so let’s say she starts to see herself as a courageous person and then maybe he finds out where she lives and he comes around and he stalks her and she’s terrified and maybe he takes the kids and she’s absolutely terrorised by this. And then what happens is she starts to think, well, I felt I was courageous, but clearly I’m not courageous because look what happened. I, you know, so I’m not a courageous person at all. I’m a coward. Whereas if we look at each instance of things and we look at the strengths that people use, so she uses courage. But in that particular instance, what would have happened if she used courage? How might that have affected the situation? Well, you know, it might have got her killed or it might have got the children harmed or anything else might have happened. So it’s a it can be a subtle distinction for some people, but it’s so quite a developed one in the work that we do here. So we don’t get people to think in terms of these as some sort of characteristics or traits. But, you know, people can use courage and they can use it at one time, but they may not use it at another time. And that then doesn’t take anything away from them because it’s a choice about whether you would use courage or not use courage.

[00:26:56] You’ve listen to the first of a series of two podcasts on the topic of family and domestic violence and child aware practise with family violence practitioners, service leaders and researchers. In the next episode of this series, we will be considering other aspects of this work, including possible entry points into conversations about children’s well-being with mothers experiencing family violence and fathers who are using violence. We’ll also be looking at themes of safety, complexity and organisational support. Thank you for listening.

Narrator [00:27:28] Visit our website at www.emergingminds.com.au. You to access a range of resources to assist your practise brought to you by the National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health, led by Merging Minds and delivered in partnership with the Australian Institute of Family Studies, the Australian National University, the Parenting Research Centre and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. The National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health is funded by the Australian Government Department of Health under the National Support for Child and Youth Mental Health Programme.

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