You recently escaped domestic abuse with school-aged children, and now it’s almost time to put them on the bus to go back to school. With everything you’ve been through, their safety is likely at the top of your mind. In addition to helping your child pick out school supplies and packing lunches, consider these four steps before sending your little ones back to school after domestic violence.
1. Transfer if Safety is a Factor
For kids who have experienced trauma and a lot of change (i.e. fleeing their home or a parent moving out), it’s best to maintain stability in other areas of their life. For instance, if you escaped to a shelter, you’re probably still trying to stick to your child’s bedtime routine or ensure they can still watch their favorite show. Continuing with school is an important way to maintain stability, particularly if they’ve attended a certain school before and have an established friend group, know the staff, etc.
“It’s always best, to the extent possible, to keep your child’s social support system intact, and school is usually a big part of that,” says Jamie M. Howard, Ph.D., a senior clinical psychologist in the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute and the director of the Center’s Trauma and Resilience Service.
There’s one caveat, though, and that’s physical safety. If there is a possibility that you or your children are at risk of physical harm by an abuser, or that an abuser may try to come to the school without permission to pick up your children, then you’ll want to consider transferring your kids to a different school. Yes, it may be a difficult transition for your child and could place additional burdens on you if another school is substantially farther away, but it’s necessary to protect yourself and your children in this instance.
“There are many reasons to keep your child at the same school,” Howard says. “The only reason not to is if the child or the parent would be at continued physical risk. That trumps all other benefits of staying.”
2. Notify School Administration
Consider requesting a private meeting with the school principal and filling them in on your family’s situation. You don’t need to go into detail (share only what you’re comfortable with) but be sure to convey the need for the school’s involvement. Provide copies of court orders and other rulings that outline who is and who is not permitted to pick up your child and what to do if an order is violated. If your child’s school is listed as a protected place on a protective order, instruct the school staff to call the police if that person shows up.
“Schools have a legal responsibility not to release your child to someone who doesn’t have the right to have your child,” Howard says. “They want kids to be safe in their care, and so they take that responsibility seriously.”
3. Schedule Your Children for Counseling
Domestic abuse takes a toll on the whole family, even if an abuser has never laid hands on the children.
“Any type of interpersonal trauma can be difficult to deal with, but particularly trauma inflicted on someone you love by someone you love,” Howard says. “It’s difficult for anyone to cope with, but especially kids. It can be extremely confusing for them.”
Howard suggests getting your child into therapy, specifically trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT), which is a form of talk therapy specifically designed to help children recover from trauma. Then, put your child’s therapist in touch with the school.
“Ideally, your TF-CBT provider will have direct contact with the school so he or she can guide them on how to interpret the child’s behavior through a sympathetic lens,” Howard says. “That way the teachers don’t assume your child isn’t paying attention or is being willfully disobedient or hyperactive. These can be very natural responses to trauma.”
4. Prepare Your Children
Just as you would discuss having a new teacher or classroom, let your kids know how else their routine might change this school year. Speak to them at a level that’s developmentally appropriate and try to keep emotion out of it.
“You may say, in a calm, matter-of-fact voice, ‘I know you love him, but Daddy’s not allowed to pick you up from school right now. If you see him at school, give me a call or let your teacher or the principal know.”
Giving kids a script helps, too.
“If Dad says, ‘Hey, hop in the car,’ tell him, ‘Hang on, Dad, I just need to talk to my teacher about something first,’ and then go find a trusted adult,” she says.
Scripts can help in other situations, too, Howard says, such as when talking to peers.
“It’s really helpful to brainstorm ways your children could answer questions they may get from other kids,” she says. “For instance, say a friend asks your child, ‘Why did you move?’ you can tell your child to say, ‘My mom and I just decided to live in a different place for right now.’”
Make sure the scripts you discuss with your child are vague and don’t contain any details about their trauma.
“We really want kids to only talk about trauma to grownups,” Howard says. “That’s to protect both the other child, who might be scared or overwhelmed by hearing about trauma and your own child. Children, when they become overwhelmed or don’t know how to handle a situation, tend to just walk away, and that can leave your child feeling overexposed and rejected, which is the last thing you want.”