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13 Jun 2024 7:11
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  •   Home > News > International

    Experts on age-appropriate ways to talk to kids about gendered and family violence

    Experts say children have probably already been exposed to the issues of gendered and family violence and it's important to speak about them.

    While it can be challenging, experts say it's important to speak to kids about gendered and family violence. 

    Associate Professor Lata Satyen, a researcher in family and sexual violence and a psychologist at Deakin University, says children "from five and upwards" are likely being exposed to family violence as an issue from their peers, by overhearing adult conversations, and through the media.

    Gendered violence is a reality in many Australian homes, frequently in the news, and the focus of recent rallies around the country

    Dr Satyen encourages parents and caregivers to be proactive and "speak about the issue in an age-appropriate way".

    "If they have no information at all, then the children might assume that certain things are OK," she says.

    Taking the lead from children 

    Susan Heward-Belle, a professor of social work at the University of Sydney, has specialised in domestic and family violence for 35 years.

    She says parents and caregivers should be prepared for "not one conversation but a series of conversations."

    While instances of family violence can often result in challenging news coverage, Professor Heward-Belle says they can be an opportunity to have meaningful conversations with kids.

    She says asking questions can be a way to understand what your child already knows, and where they might be confused or curious. 

    For example, some schools watch news programs like Behind the News. Or rally attendance could be discussed between friends.

    She also says advertisements on TV, bus stops and social media can be "opportunities for broader conversation about the issue".

    Dr Satyen adds that the conversation and approach will need to be different if there's violence or control happening in the home.

    Preparing age-appropriate conversations

    Dr Satyen recommends planning out what to say, factoring in different ages.

    "Let's say there's a five-year-old and a 13-year-old, [you wouldn't have] the conversation together because the comprehension level is going to be different," she says.

    "Parents and other caregivers need to be prepared to answer those follow-up questions."

    Professor Heward-Belle says it's important that parents and caregivers are domestic violence informed to challenge commonly held beliefs, such as victims being responsible or 'asking for' abuse.

    "[Age-appropriate books] can create a distance, but also enable an exploration of these sensitive topics," she says.

    Dr Satyen says children need information about safety and security "irrespective of their gender".

    When discussing violence and behaviour, have the same messaging for boys and girls.

    However, she uses an example of an older teenage boy specifically asking, "Do men actually do this more?" In this instance Dr Satyen says you might say "boys and men can be harmed as well, but yes, the stats do show that men are overwhelmingly responsible for most domestic violence".

    Dr Satyen says "you do have to be factual" especially when children are at an age where they can comprehend.

    What to say 

    Using language that kids understand is key.

    "Children understand about people 'hurting' people, people 'harming' people," Professor Heward-Belle says.

    More talking points from Professor Heward-Belle and Dr Satyen include:

    • Asking the child about recent events they may have already been exposed to, e.g. a family member going to a rally, or violence they have witnessed.
    • Discussing how violence is never OK, and how every person has a right to safety and respect in their relationships.
    • Talking about what positive relationships look like, and modelling being respectful and not aggressive when interacting with others.
    • Asking how your child is feeling, and that they can always come to you for advice, support or questions.

    One option for younger children could be a "safety hand activity", explains Professor Heward-Belle.

    "You go through each finger with the child and go, 'Tell me on this finger who's one person that you can go to if you're feeling scared or unsafe or someone's hurting or harming you."'

    Dr Satyen says children will "need a lot of reassurance and assurance that they're going to be kept safe" and that the "adult will protect the child at all times", which is key towards the end of any conversation, along with making it clear they can keep talking to you about the topic.

    However, Dr Satyen says "if the adult or child is not safe, remember there is help available".

    Why have the conversation? 

    Dr Satyen says organisations including Our Watch run respectful relationship programs in school so children "start forming gender equal attitudes".

    "That is happening at the primary school level so that children understand how people need to treat each other.

    "[It's] important because attitude formation starts happening at a very early age."

    She says it's important that those patterns of behaviour and attitudes are also demonstrated at home and in their other social circles.

    "If they're learning about respectful relationships in school, but then in the family that's actually not being practised, then the children might get confused."

    Professor Heward-Belle says the conversation can "also be an opportunity to check in with kids about how they handle things when they feel scared or how they handle things when they feel unsafe".

    It also helps to "lay a foundation" that the parent or caregiver is a "safe person who can have an open dialogue about hurting and harming".

    © 2024 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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