The Pathway to Healing: Parenting After Domestic Violence

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.  Whether you have recently left an abusive relationship, are still in one, or are looking for ways to support the survivors in your life, this blog post will give you some tips to help adults build strong, positive relationships with children that protect children from the negative results of being exposed to domestic violence.

When one person in a relationship uses physical or emotional of abuse to control the other, this is domestic violence. Living with domestic violence takes a toll on all family members. While statistics can’t possibly do justice to the pain and heartbreak victims and survivors of domestic violence suffer, they can give us a sense of its alarming prevalence:

  • On average, 20 people per minute are abused by an intimate partner in the U.S. That equates to more than 10 million per year.

  • 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner.

  • Intimate partner violence accounts for 15% of all violent crime.

When children are victims or witness abuse, they may feel afraid even if the immediate danger is over. But developing positive relationships with children helps provide ways to cope with the stress, feel safe, and heal.

What is Domestic Violence?

Domestic violence includes willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, and sexual assault. Such behavior is often part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another.  The frequency and severity of domestic violence can vary dramatically.

Some children living with abuse do not show signs of stress. Others struggle at home, at school, or in the community. You may notice increased fear or anger, clinging behaviors, difficulty sleeping, or tantrums. If the abuse goes on for a long time, children may experience more serious problems like depression or anxiety, withdrawing from school, or substance use.

What You Can Do

Fortunately, whether a child has experienced or witnessed an isolated instance of domestic violence or the adverse childhood experiences continue over the course of years, adults can help kids in tragic situations become more resilient. Strong relationships with caring, nonviolent adults are key to growing up in a positive way.

Here are some steps you can take to strengthen positive relationships with children and facilitate healing:

  1. Plan for safety. If you are a parent living in an abusive situation, include your children in a safety plan. Teach them how to call 911, where to go for help, and never to get in the middle of an adult fight. Local domestic violence advocates can help you make a plan without judging your situation! If you are a neighbor, teacher, or adult friend observing signs of domestic violence, gently let survivors and victims know they can come to you if they need anything.

  2. Take care of yourself. You may feel protective of your children and put their needs ahead of your own. This is natural, but realize that finding ways to cope with your own stress is good for you and for your children. Make time to connect with friends, exercise, listen to music, take a bath, or do something else that helps you relax and refocus. For friends of survivors, consider little ways you can take the pressure off. Offer to babysit if you can and give the adults space to think.

  3. Help your children feel secure. Keep your kids close to you when you can and give them lots of eye contact, kisses, and hugs. Play together, even if you only have a few minutes to spare. As much as possible, establish and keep to routines such as bedtime reading and regular meal times. Letting them know they are loved is one of the best ways to help them heal.

  4. Stay calm. When interacting with kids who have lived with violence, remember that they may act out in ways that make life more chaotic. Set clear limits and follow through, but keep calm. If you need help handling your strong feelings, get help. Kids will respond well when they see differences being worked out in a calm way.

  5. Talk about it. A big part of developing positive relationships with children is being willing to listen to the kids in your life. Let them talk about what happened and how they feel. Tell them the truth when they ask questions. Reassure them that you are doing whatever you can to keep the family safe.

  6. Help your children develop relationships. Positive relationships with children in their peer group and other supportive adults can help your children manage stress and stay strong and happy. Identify others who can offer safe spaces for your kids. If your child doesn’t want to open up to you, there may be others she can trust. Facilitate and encourage these relationships.

  7. Celebrate their strengths. Find activities and skills your children are good at. Nurture their interests and praise them when they do well in school. When adults point out and reinforce our personal strengths from a young age, we gain the confidence to rise above past and future adversity.

Remember: As a parent, you are the most important person in your children’s lives. And as an adult who can provide a safe haven from abuse, you could become a welcome shelter in a storm. Let the children in your life know that you are there for them, you love them, and you will do everything in your power to keep them safe.

For our part, the Exchange Family Center is joining forces with Durham’s Crisis Response Center and the Center for Child and Family Health to offer strong community support to families and survivors. Durham’s Domestic Violence Integrated Response System provides training to first responders to buffer children from long term consequences. We will provide in home parent coaching and therapy, as well as support child care providers in creating safe, responsive, and healing spaces.

In addition, we’ll participate in the first Domestic Violence Forum hosted by Durham Human Services to listen to the stories of survivors and consider further community initiatives to support children and families experiencing the aftermath of abuse. EFC is proud to be a leader in the community when it comes to supporting survivors and teaching adults how to create positive relationships with children.

If you are in danger, contact:

  • 911 for emergency police assistance

  • The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) for safety planning and referrals to local help

Other resources:

Parts of this blog article were adapted from the 2018 Prevention Resource Guide from the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau. You can download this and other tip sheets by at