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How we Help Children Heal


Published on June 7, 2024

When children arrive at WAGEC’s refuge, it’s the case workers who meet them with open arms. They get to work straight away, making mum a cup of tea, and helping children restore a sense of safety.

Our case workers are on the frontline of the epidemic that is family violence. They see the devastating impacts this has firsthand – but they also hold the solutions to help children recover from trauma.

Meet Manda, a caseworker in WAGEC’s Helping Children Heal program. She works alongside children who have experienced violence every day, and shares some of her expertise with us in this Q and A.

What first happens when children come into the program?

Once a child has been referred to Helping Children Heal, they are assigned a specialist case worker from WAGEC’s team. The case worker will then reach out to the child’s parent or caregiver to set up an initial appointment.

After that appointment, the case worker will collaborate with the parent or caregiver and the child to develop a support plan. This helps us understand what the goals, and achievements the family agree on and keeps everyone on the same page.

What are children most confused about when they first come into living at a refuge?

Children are initially confused about why they are living at a refuge, having to change schools and why they have lost their family and/or community. Children may have a long history of feeling powerless or a sense of responsibility to protect their siblings or their Mum. Now that there are other adults around, this can be confusing to their sense of identity.

 How do children tend to process violence?

Children who have experienced violence (whether directly or indirectly) have greater emotional and behavioural problems than other children. We also know that this has significant and detrimental effects on their physical and mental wellbeing, development and schooling.

Every child processes their experience of violence differently depending on different factors. Generally, without any adult guidance or support to understand the violence, we often see children try to make sense of what’s happened through changes in their behaviour such as not listening, talking back, lashing out, hitting others, hiding, crying, being more defiant or oppositional.

This is often the case as some children don’t have the words or language to name or identify the feelings that have arisen in them because of the violence (e.g. confusion, anger, fear, sadness, hopelessness etc). Children communicate to adults in ways they know best, similar to a baby crying to communicate that they are feeling hungry, tired, sick or just want to be held.

Children can sometimes create their own narratives or stories which helps them to make sense of the violence. Preschoolers do not have the cognitive ability to see the situation in a wider context, and may perceive themselves as the cause of the violence around them. They might think that not picking up their toys is the reason for an argument between their parents, for example.

Do children tend to have coping strategies after experiencing or witnessing violence?

Children have different coping strategies which they use to protect themselves. It is important to understand that children cope in different ways. Some children might want to spend extra time with friends, while some might want to spend more time alone. They might want to speak to you one day and then ignore you the next. Sometimes children will withdraw and try to be ‘invisible’. Others may try and get their needs met by escalating or developing overly affectionate habits to get people to like them and to meet their own needs.

As adults, we need to validate the range of experiences, and let them know that it is normal and OK to experience feelings of anger, guilt and sadness.

Are children who have experienced or witnessed abuse at more risk?

Children who have experienced violence are more at risk than other children because their exposure can affect their emotions, behaviour and overall development. This often requires further intervention from other health support services, like speech and occupational therapists, or paediatricians.

What do you think is most vital to children’s healing journey after violence?

Stability and consistency (as much as possible) within the child’s world is critical to support their healing journey. This can be through everyday activities such as going to school, going to after school care or continuing with extra curricula activities.

Similarly, children need to be given the opportunity to process their own experience of the violence with a qualified professional through different means, such as talking, playing or drawing.

What would happen if the Helping Children Heal Program didn’t exist?

If the Helping Children Heal program did not exist, children in refuge would not have the opportunity to make sense of the violence or abuse they have experienced. This can lead to significant problems in the child and family’s life. One of the most critical areas of the program is to support a child and their parent/caregiver to restore and strengthen their relationship with one another.

If children do not get the help they need, they remain vulnerable and at risk because these difficulties get in the way of a child’s ability to function in healthy and adaptive ways in their life.

What is the most rewarding part of working in the Helping Children Heal program?

It is a real privilege to work alongside children and parents to strengthen their relationship with one another. My goal as a practitioner is to support the parent to understand the child’s needs and to get the parent to a place where they are comfortable and confident enough to do this. Similarly, seeing the growth and change in parents throughout our time together constantly reminds me of why the work we do is so important.

The demand for our Helping Children Heal program is growing, and we have no choice but to turn some people away. Your donation helps Manda continue to support children and families to recover from violence and build brighter, safer futures.