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Why kids know a lot more about domestic violence than we think

Dannielle Miller, education officer for Women’s Community Shelters, explains how we can help little kids to process big emotions. 

I was a little girl plagued by nightmares. Monsters under the bed, ghosts standing over me as I slept; I feared the uncertainty darkness veiled my room in. If I’d been allowed, I would have slept with my light on. Instead, I would sneak into my younger sister’s room (there was safety in connection). Or, if I happened to have squirrelled away some batteries, I’d sleep with a torch under my pillow, at the ready.

If I could see my tormentor, perhaps they would be unable to hurt me.

Much is made of how carefree childhood is.

Except of course that for many children it isn’t carefree at all. Many young people carry about adult-sized burdens that aren’t of the fictional ghoul and goblin variety, but all too real.

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2020 has been tough

The kids I have spoken to this year tell me they’re worrying about when they might get to see their grandparents again, or whether their parents will find a new job.

They’ve noticed there are more raised voices in the home; that one of their parents seems to be crying a lot. Certainly, we know domestic violence has increased during this pandemic. A recent survey of 15,000 women conducted by the Australian Institute of Criminology revealed that more than half of women who had experienced physical or sexual violence before the COVID-19 crisis said the violence had become more frequent or severe since the start of the pandemic.

It’s more important than ever that we create conditions for little kids to process big emotions, and that we provide opportunities for them to feel power over a situation is within their grasp.

How to empower

This desire to initiate empowering, age-appropriate conversations around the often-avoided topic of domestic violence, and to give kids a sense of agency (as well as raise some much needed funds) is what underpins Women’s Community Shelter’s new fundraiser, “Chores for a Cause”.

In September, we are asking kids ages from eight to 18 to support the women and children in need in their community by completing chores in their homes and neighbourhoods in exchange for money they can then donate to the shelter of their choice.

Why not just sell chocolates or have a walkathon? Because by focusing on household work, we’re hoping to facilitate some really important conversations in our homes and schools around chore equity (what sort of chores do families need to do, and how often does each family member usually spend on these?), gender stereotyping (there’s no such thing as girls’ work and boys’ work – we can all do all the domestic jobs!) and respectful relationships (every member of a family should feel safe and respected). It’s fundraising with a purpose.

The value of work

And it is also a win not just for our shelter network, but for the kids who participate. Research also clearly shows that meaningful fund-raising opportunities like this one are just what our young people need right now. During times of uncertainty, altruistic acts boost our morale and foster a sense of competence.

I suspect in hindsight that the shouting and banging I often heard in the house at night from my parents fighting may well have provided the soundscape that fuelled my bad dreams.

Finding bravery

Once, when my grandparents were visiting, and my beloved grandfather found me creeping about at night looking for a safe bed to squeeze into, he asked me why I felt so afraid. I didn’t have the words to answer him. Back then, domestic violence seemed a shameful topic to discuss, a dirty little secret that lurked hidden under the bed.

Yet, despite my reluctance to articulate everything I was processing, he told me I was a brave girl who had done many brave things, and that indeed I would go on to do many more courageous acts. He advised that the next time I was confronted with a dream-demon, I should stand firm and face them. I should tell them they had no power over me.

His advice worked – some of the time. Much to my shock, I could make a difference and my dream monsters would evaporate or dissolve under my determined gaze.

Other times, I felt paralysed in my dreams, unable to run or scream for help.

But it was a life-changing conversation, regardless. Someone had noticed my distress, and reassured me that I can do hard things.

Giving back, for the first time

For some kids, participating in “Chores for a Cause” will simply be an opportunity to get messy while they “help” make cakes, or wash the car. They’ll complete their chores, carefully select which shelter they wish to donate their hard-earned coins to, then print off their Certificate of Achievement and proudly display it on the fridge.

This could possibly be their first positive experience with giving, and plant a seed that may grow into an adulthood enhanced by the joy of volunteering and contributing.

For others, it may the first time they also feel emboldened to shine a light around some of the dark crevices in their homes, and to feel less ashamed and alone – for they’ll see there are entire communities of kids and adults working with them to instigate connection and change.

Dannielle Miller is a parenting author and educator. She is also the education officer for Women’s Community Shelters.