Question of the week: How do I help a mom whose child has been physically abused?


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“We were all so excited when one of our single moms married a man in our church. Little did we know this guy had a history of abuse. One of her little kids was hurt pretty badly by this guy. The state got involved, and she and her children are safe now, but the one who was abused the most has started to really act out. He goes into a rage at the least little thing. He hurts the other children, and parents are starting to complain. My volunteers are worried he is going to explode and really hurt someone. We’ve tried timeout. We’ve isolated him. We’ve tried ignoring him. Mom says he is the same way at home, and she sends him to his room.”

Little children who have been abused can be afraid and worried about their safety and the safety of their parents and siblings. This little kid may be worrying that the abuser will return. We don’t know what the abuser has told the child. He may have threatened to hurt others if the child told anyone.


We also don’t know what triggers the child.

  • It could be that someone comes in with the same aftershave as the abuser.
  • It might be a color of clothing that looks similar to the abuser’s.
  • It could be something someone says in a particular tone of voice.
  • The child may think he has seen the abuser in different places.

There are many things that will trigger this child. When the child is scared, the brain reverts to the lower level, the fight-or-flight part of the brain. The child becomes reactive because of the trigger.

The first response must be one of safety—creating a safe environment. All the teachers and all those who work with, minister to, or live with this child need to learn the “Safekeeper” way of talking. We use the Safekeeper talk in DC4K (DivorceCare for Kids).

In the Safekeeper style of talk, an adult assures the child is safe by telling him, “I’m a Safekeeper. My job is to keep you safe. And you have a job, too. Know what your job is? Your job is to help me keep things safe.”


For children who have been abused, neglected, or deserted, feeling safe is of the utmost importance. What you need to keep in mind is that many of these kids haven’t felt safe in a long time, so the adults in their lives have be especially cognizant of reminding the children they are safe. Also, to feel safe, one has to be able to trust in something greater than oneself, so the trust factor needs to be developed, too.

When these children don’t feel safe, they act out. Their behavior is screaming for someone to help them be safe. You may need to have the child repeat after you, “I am safe. I am safe.” If the child is preschool age or developmentally delayed, do not say, “You are safe.” The younger child can’t turn the pronoun around, so he only hears that you, not him, are safe.

For the time being, don’t worry about addressing the disruptive behaviors, the raging, or the hitting because until you get the brain calmed down, you can’t address the behavior.

By using the Safekeeper-style talk, you prepare the environment and the child for when the child lashes out with hitting or kicking.

“Jason, remember I’m the Safekeeper. My job is to keep you safe. Do you remember what your job is? It’s to help me keep things safe. Hitting is not safe. What could you do that would be safe?”

At this point, you may need to offer a couple of suggestions as to what the child could do instead of hitting.

Sending a child in a rage to timeout will not work. The child is frightened, and unless you can assure him he is safe, timeout will only serve to make the situation worse. Sending him away and isolating him will not serve to help him feel safe. He can’t regulate his behavior internally, so he needs an adult to help him regulate his behavior externally, and that can only be done when the child is safe.

Help the mom to understand why sending the child to his room alone is not going to help him with his behavior. If anything, it will serve to cause him to go into a rage. He needs his mom to help him regulate, and he can’t do it when he is in his room alone.

Safe place

I suggested that one mom set up a safe place in the living room. She talked to her son during a calm time, and they now have a place for him to go when he doesn’t feel safe. It is a “take-a-break” place he can go to. I told her to put a bottle of water in there. Also, put some of his favorite books, blanket, and stuffed animals in there.

Easy to use tips

What will go a long way in helping these children are

  • Loving attitudes
  • Smiles
  • Kindness
  • Assurances of safety
  • Calmness from adults
  • Modeling breathing deeply

For some children, it is a slow process, and the Safekeeper talk will need to be repeated often and every time they attend your group.

Tell the entire class that you are the Safekeeper. Explain when they aren’t feeling safe, they can come to you. Let all the children know that when they see someone not being safe, they should tell you, and you will help that person feel safe. When one child acts out, many times the other children don’t feel safe. This gives the other children permission to help their friend feel safe, and it sets the tone for the group. You will be surprised at how these simple tools can change the scared child, and by doing that, you’ll gradually see the disruptive behaviors disappear.


This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on the Kids & Divorce blog on May 27, 2014.

DC4K blogs posts are great to use for training children’s leaders and volunteers and they are free.  Subscribe to the DC4K blog here.

Want to learn more about how to start a DivorceCare for Kids group for the hurting children in your community? Click here.

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One thought on “Question of the week: How do I help a mom whose child has been physically abused?

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