Helping Children Affected by Domestic Violence on their Journey to Healing
At YWCA Evanston/North Shore’s domestic violence shelter, we provide emergency shelter for up to 32 women* and children every night. On average each year, we serve 70 to 80 children living in the shelter. The majority (around 60%) of children are under 5 years old.
Along with service offerings for the domestic violence victim herself, we offer programming specifically designed for children in the shelter. Through their participation in the program, children learn that they are not alone in their journey, find their voice, and experience parts of
themselves that they haven’t yet had the opportunity to experience. Ultimately children can begin to see their future in a new light.
*When we talk about domestic violence, we often refer to women and mothers. We recognize that survivors of domestic violence are not exclusively women. We accept male survivors into our shelter, the majority of our residents are women.
- Therapeutic Play (for children 5 and under) – Children can work with our staff for up to 8 hours per week in a safe space where they can play freely and learn to interact with other children with gentle redirection. Mothers may also utilize this program when they are in individual therapy in order to have a separate space from their children to openly discuss the abuse that they have endured.
- Group Sessions (for children 3 and older) – Children can attend up to 4 group sessions a week where they can participate in activities to help them process their experiences gently and without pressure. Further, children learn to reduce stress, increase their coping skills and mitigate the long-term negative impacts of abuse.
- Individual and Family Therapy (for child 3 years and older) – As requested by the parent, children can engage in individual and family therapy on a weekly basis.
- School Advocacy – When children arrive at the shelter, we work with their current school or nearby schools to ensure they are enrolled and receiving appropriate services. We act as a liaison between the family and the school and advocate on the family’s behalf whenever necessary.
Our children’s programming focuses on four key elements:
One of the core principles of helping a child begin to heal from witnessing domestic violence is establishing a sense a safety. Though children may only spend a few months in the shelter, the Children’s Program helps them feel safe to begin the long healing process. We provide a warm, welcoming environment for children to begin processing their experiences without judgement.
Continued research shows that children have better outcomes when their mothers learn about the impact of the violence on their child and practice positive parenting techniques. We provide psychoeducation to parents, teaching them about the biological effects of trauma, so that they can better understand why their child may be behaving or responding in a particular way. This makes it possible for mothers to better understand the experiences, perspectives and reactions of their children.
All Children’s Program staff have been trained in a trauma-informed practices. We’ve moved away from the traditional medical model of asking what is wrong with a child to asking what has happened to them. Understanding that the effects of trauma can appear in different ways and that traditional talk therapy may not be effective for everyone, especially young children who may not have the vocabulary to express themselves, we began implementing a trauma-informed program called A Window Between Worlds. A Window Between Worlds utilizes art to provide families a safe and creative space to express their emotions, tell their stories and begin to recognize their self-worth.
In order for a mother to be fully present and connected to her child, she needs to first cope with her own emotions in the wake
of her abuse. Children’s Program staff collaborate with adult counselors and work directly with mothers to help them unpack their experiences and gain self-confidence so they can work towards being the best support system possible for their child.