How can I help my 4 year old deal with witnessing violence at home?
Q: My son age 4 witnessed his father assault me 6 months ago. The domestic abuse did not leave me severely wounded, but my screams for help were very distressing for him. For the past few weeks he has begun to talk about how daddy hurt mommy to strangers. He uses toys to reenact the incident and speaks about rather morbid things for a 4 year old. I reassure him by saying to him that he is safe with both of us when at each home. Any advice? He isn't in counseling yet, how do I help him?
A: This issue is a challenge to deal with for children of any age, but especially when the child is too young to identify and understand the complex emotions that go along with it. Having said that, you can start by offering him validation in addition to reassurance when he brings up the topic. Let him know that his feelings are normal and that it makes sense to feel scared after having experienced what he did. If he has questions, try to answer them honestly but use your judgment to protect him from inappropriate details. Also, keep in mind that predictability and consistency provide comfort to children and that having a predictable schedule as well as consistent routines and parenting strategies from one home to the other can go a long way towards helping ease his mind. If both parents work together to send a consistent message to him (and no further incidents occur), it will eventually get through. If these behaviors persist as he gets older, take them seriously and consider taking him to a therapist that specializes in working with children who have witnessed domestic violence. It is not unusual for children to experience PTSD-like symptoms after having lived through even one domestic violence event, but with counseling, you can get through it together.
Answered by Jeff Palitz, MFT