Talking to younger kids about their case is sometimes challenging because their vocabulary doesn’t include words commonly found in the legal system. The concepts are complex and need to be broken down in a way that they can understand. The easiest way to do that is to analogize something they don’t know with something they do.
For example, when kids ask why they can’t go home yet, we tell them that their parents have to do their homework before that can happen. We remind them of what their “homework” is (go to school, be a kid, etc.), and then tell them that their parent has homework, too, that they have to do so they can keep their kids safe at home. Most of the time, kids don’t ask me what their parents’ homework is, but if they do, I might say something like, “You know how you go to therapy? Your parents have to do that, too.” I don’t necessarily share everything their parent has to do, of course, but this gives them a general idea of what’s going on.
One thing to be careful about, however, is that some of these kids don’t really know what it means to be safe in their home. When I ask kids what their parent does to keep them safe in their home, they may be able to identify things like “Takes me to the basement if there’s a tornado,” or, “chases away bad dogs,” they may not be able to identify things like, “Doesn’t beat/choke/push my mom.” If they’ve seen this kind of abuse, they may think it’s normal. They may even believe that their mom (usually the one being abused) caused it, by making dad angry. This will generally come out in therapy, and we can start to expand their definition of “safe.” If mom is working with a domestic violence advocate, we can remind them that there were a “lot of unsafe behaviors” in the home, and (for example) mom is working hard to learn how to keep herself and you safe from those behaviors.” Or, “Dad is learning how to be safe with your mom.”
However, if there is a No Contact Order (“NCO”) in place, I might tell the kids that, “Dad cannot be around mom if he’s not safe. He’s learning how to be safe with your mom, but that’s big homework, and some dads have trouble learning that. But even if he doesn’t figure that out, that has nothing to do with how much he loves you.” If the physical/mental/emotional abuse also involves the kids, I may instead say something like, “Some parents love their kids, but don’t really know how to show that in a safe way. So, it might not feel like they love you. Part of their homework is to learn how to safely love their kids.”
Often there is parental substance abuse. Sometimes the kids are aware of this, but if not, I may not disclose it, at least not initially. But if they do know about it, we talk about how learning to not use those substances is part of their parents’ homework. I tell them that this, too, is “hard homework,” and that their parents will have to work hard to get this homework done. I tell them that drugs trick their parents’ brain into making bad decisions. I tell them that it also tricks their body into believing it needs the drug. This can sometimes be compared to “craving” a particular food, but I am careful about that, because younger kids take things literally, and if they “crave” a particular food, they may think they have a substance abuse problem.
I also tell them that because drugs are tricky, their parents’ inability to stop using drugs has nothing to do with how much they love them. This is important because kids (like many adults) believe that if their parents really loved them, they would stop using. And that hurts them, because if parents don’t stop using, kids think that means their parents don’t love them. And if their parents don’t love them, then who will?
Languages, Part Three will talk about words and phrases that may mean one thing to us, but something entirely different to kids involved in the system, and why it’s really important to understand how kids are defining things.