For children exposed to IPV, “escape” equals resilience

Posted on Jun 5, 2017 in Blog

We all love to “escape” occasionally, although many of us feel pangs of guilt about what can feel like a bit of self-indulgence.  In fact, if you Google “escapism,” you’ll find dozens of sites on “dealing with escapism” and “leaving your fantasy escapism world for reality.” The message is clear: escapism can quickly morph from fun into full-on avoidance behaviour.

But for children who live in homes with intimate partner violence (IPV), escapism can mean psychological survival—and can be a critical part of the resilience process. That’s one of the findings we report in “The lie is that it’s not going to get better”: Narratives of resilience from childhood exposure to Intimate Partner Violence.

“What helped you to get through?”

In our study, we explored how adult survivors exposed to IPV as children coped with their trauma. During one-on-one interviews, we asked, “What helped you to get through?” Our analysis of their responses revealed several factors that contributed to the resilience process. Themes included:

  • Escapism
  • Insight and self-efficacy
  • Perseverance and hope
  • Desire not to repeat the cycle of abuse
  • Positive caregiving, social support and community

“Escapism” jumped out at us. This is a relatively new finding and we were particularly interested in what escapism looked like for our participants as they recalled their childhood experiences.

Some found external ways to remove themselves from distressing environments: “. . . when I went to school and if I saw my friends there I would pretend it was okay and then I was in this space where I could escape for a little while . . .” This allowed those individuals to forget about what was happening at home.

Others retreated to ‘inner sanctuaries’ to escape the reality of their environments. “I was an A student, I was always reading, writing . . .,” one said.  “I was a bookworm, so for me a lot of it was escapism…trying to find an alternative from the reality I lived in,” another revealed.

One participant offered advice to others experiencing domestic violence in their homes: “I would say that if you can try hard on one thing, try hard to escape, and find life from there.”

Organized programs can be a life-saver

It’s worth noting that most of our study participants were about 30 to 35 years of age, often mentioning using books as an escape. Others escaped by turning to music or sports, or after-school activities.  Within my own practice I have found that some clients, especially those age 24 or under, escape by spending a lot of time on the Internet, watching YouTube videos or reading blogs.

Organized programs can be a life-saver for many exposed to IPV: kids require robust community resources, including well-funded after-school programs and community centres; in-school arts and music programs; and extra-curricular physical education activities. Children and teens need to be able to escape to something positive that will introduce, or build upon a skill or a talent that makes them feel good in their world.

So, as practitioners, what can we learn from this study? How can escapism help children exposed to intimate partner violence?

Part of the issue is that many of our assessment protocols are problem focused. We ask, “When did the problem start; what does it look like; how often does it happen, etc.” Of course, it’s important to explore the reasons and problems that bring someone in for help, but it’s also critical to recognize the child or youth as a whole person with their own interests, skills—and strengths.

“What are they good at? When was the last time they functioned at their best?” “What was happening at their highest points?”  If children or teens are escaping into an activity that improves their self-esteem, then how can we capitalize on that strength?

For practitioners, it’s often as basic as asking, “What helped you get through? How did you cope with this?” “Could that be helpful to you now?”

More treatment programs need a resilience focus

Right now in Canada, very few of our treatment programs are resilience-informed. We need to shift our perspective to recognize the dynamic nature of the resilience process. Asking questions that help children and youth identify and understand their capacities and strengths—and the fact that they can be empowered to manage, survive, and more importantly thrive—helps them (and others) to navigate through IPV trauma.

I invite you to read the full study here.

Is there a place for a resilience-focused approach in your practice? Do you use particular questions in your practice to help uncover resilience? Click here to tell us more.

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Posted on: June 2017