29 March 2017

Children who speak about domestic violence are met with a variety of reactions from adults who are close to them. They can get support and practical assistance with managing their day-to-day lives, for instance from grandparents. But the adults rarely take a stand and report what has happened.
Barn bakom glasdörr. Foto: IstockThis is according to a doctoral thesis in social work written by Nina Åkerlund from Linköping University.
Åkerlund interviewed 20 children between 11 and 19 years of age, who have experienced violence between adults – often where their mother is targeted.
The aim of the thesis was to discover how children describe their own actions and reactions in conjunction with domestic violence, as well as how their siblings, grandparents and other adults in their proximity act and react.

Unwilling to get involved

“In the best of worlds, the adults would report the violence, but this doesn’t always happen. There is an unwillingness to get involved, sometimes also a fear of the perpetrator. Grandparents can feel dual loyalties. They want to be there for their grandchildren, but don’t want to get involved in the adults’ business. Other adults in the proximity of the children can feel the same dual loyalty – they might be best friends with the parents in the family,” says Nina Åkerlund.
Still, the adults provide support through all sorts of everyday actions that make life easier and more secure for the child and any siblings, such as opening up their home, visiting the family or phoning the child.
Nina Åkerlund also studied the children’s strategies when faced with domestic violence, and divided these into three categories: vulnerable victim, vulnerable but capable actor, and adult-like and caring actor.

Clear about their own needs

“In the first category, the children openly show their vulnerability, that they are afraid and sad. These are often the younger children. In the second group they also show their vulnerability, but they express their wishes and needs as well. In the third, more adult category, the children don’t show their vulnerability. Rather, they take on a large responsibility for the situation, for instance by taking care of siblings or by intervening against the violence.
If the children are to receive the help they require, they must be perceived as both vulnerable and capable, according to the results. That is, it’s not enough to just be sad; the children must also be clear about their needs.
“Then those around the children can take action in a way that benefits the children. If the children only show their vulnerability, the adults do take action, but they often make decisions without consulting the child.”

Social workers uncertain

Nina Åkerlund points out that the big losers are the children who behave like adults:
“They can be just as unhappy as the ones who show their vulnerability, but the adults don’t notice, so the children don’t get the support they need. Instead they can hear encouraging words like ‘It’s great that you take care of your sister’, or ‘Well done for helping your mum’.”
Nina Åkerlund hopes that the thesis will help the social services in their work with children subject to violence and their social networks.
“Many social workers are uncertain about how they should speak to the children and include them in the assessment.”
Nina Åkerlund is affiliated with Linköping University’s Division of Social Work at the Department of Social and Welfare Studies. She works at the Jönköping County Administrative Board as director of development for issues relating to men’s violence against women and domestic violence. Her doctoral thesis is a collaboration between Linköping University and Region Jönköping.

The title of the doctoral thesis: Barns relationer i våldets närhet – Respons, positioner och möjligheten till barns röst
(Children’s relations in the proximity of violence – Response, positions and the possibility to children’s voices)

Photo: Istock