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Supporting Woman Abuse Survivors as Mothers

This page is an excerpt from:

Helping Children Thrive: Supporting Woman Abuse Survivors as Mothers

Survival Strategies of Children & Teenagers

When faced with a difficult situation, children "cope" by coming to an understanding (possibly distorted) about what is happening and dealing with the flood of hurtful emotions. Their strategies can involve feelings (emotional), thoughts (cognitive), or actions (behavioural).

Some strategies are helpful

  • examples are seeking peers or supportive adults to talk about the feelings

  • young children cannot easily engage in healthy strategies and need adults to buffer them from the harmful consequences of family adversities such as violence

Some strategies are helpful but costly

  • strategies may be helpful during a crisis but not healthy in the long run, such as emotional numbing, self-injury, substance use, having a baby to escape the family, or being an emotional caretaker for a parent

  • these strategies can be a response to a variety of family adversities, including violence and maltreatment

  • an objectively helpful strategy may not "work" while some objectively unhealthy strategies did do

  • they help a child get through a time of stress or crisis, such as when there is violence in the home

  • however, if used after the crisis is over, or in other circumstances, these strategies may create problems

  • the longer a strategy is used, or the more effective it is in shielding a youth from overwhelming emotions and hurt, the harder it may be to extinguish


Once the family is safe, gradually extinguishing strategies with negative effects and replacing them with healthier strategies may be the key to helping children who have lived with family adversities such as violence.


These are some coping strategies commonly observed in children and teenagers who have lived with violence and maltreatment. Remember that coping styles vary with age.

Mental Blocking or Disconnecting Emotionally

  • numbing emotions or blocking thoughts

  • tuning out the noise, learning not to hear it, being oblivious

  • concentrating hard to believe they are somewhere else

  • drinking alcohol or using drugs

Making it Better Through Fantasy

  • planning revenge on abuser, fantasizing about killing him

  • fantasizing about a happier life, living with a different family

  • fantasizing about life after a divorce or after the abuser leaves

  • fantasizing about abuser being "hit by a bus"

  • hoping to be rescued, by super heroes or police or "Prince Charming"

Physical Avoidance

  • going into another room, leaving the house during a violent episode

  • finding excuses to avoid going home

  • running away from home

Looking for Love (and Acceptance) in all the Wrong Places

  • falling in with bad friends

  • having sex for the intimacy and closeness

  • trying to have a baby as a teenager or getting pregnant as a teen to have someone to love you

Taking Charge Through Caretaking

  • protecting brothers and sisters from danger

  • nurturing brothers and Sisters like a surrogate mother / taking the "parent" role

  • nurturing his or her mother

Reaching out for Help

  • telling a teacher, neighbour, or friend's mother

  • calling the police

  • talking to siblings, friends, or supportive adults

Crying out for Help

  • suicidal gestures

  • self-injury

  • lashing out in anger / being aggressive with others / getting into fights

Re-Directing Emotions into Positive Activities

  • sports, running, fitness

  • writing, journalling, drawing, acting, being creative

  • excelling academically

Trying to Predict, Explain, Prevent or Control the Behaviour of an Abuser

  • thinking "Mommy has been bad" or "I have been bad" or "Daddy is under stress at work"

  • thinking "I can stop the violence by changing my behaviour" or "I can predict the violence"

  • trying to be the perfect child

  • lying to cover up bad things (e.g., a bad grade) to avoid criticism and worse

Handout for Women

How my Child or Teen Copes

Help women use this sheet to identify coping strategies of each of her children (this exercise will not be helpful for babies, toddlers, or most pre-schoolers). Distinguish between those used in response to violence in the past and those still used today. The group can brainstorm specific ways to encourage healthy strategies.

Want to know more?

Alison Cunningham & Linda Baker (2004). What About Me! Seeking to Understand the Child's View of Violence in the Family. London ON: Centre for Children & Families in the Justice System.


back: Why the Everyday Essentials for Parenting are Importanttable of contentsnext: Impact of Violence on Infants


Find more information on working with abused women in these two resources from 2008.

Helping an Abused Woman: 101 Things to Know, Say & Do

Helping Abused Women in Shelters: 101 Things to Know, Say & Do

If you want more information on how children are affected by living with domestic violence, see our various publications and resources on Children and Domestic Violence

Helping Abused Women in Shelters


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