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Child Witnessed Father Beat Mother

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Dr. Laura,
One of my friends lives a troubled marriage with an abusive and a ruthless husband and her 5 year old son. They've always yelled at each other while their son was asleep and he is a terrible presence in the household: a drunk and a deadbeat. The other day, over a small matter, her husband beat her on the floor. Their son saw all of it. My friend has moved out to her parents' place with her son. The son keeps asking on why daddy had to beat mommy. What she did wrong.

I want to help my friend and her son. But what should we do before we go for counseling? There are few counseling centers in my area. But whatever we can do at home, we want to start first in order to make it a bit easy for him. He keeps waking up in the middle of the night and saying that he can hear his father shouting. He's afraid of his father. My friend needs your help and guidance.

Thank you!


I am so sorry for your friend and her son. Please get her to counseling immediately so that she does not return to this man. Abuse like this only gets worse. And because the child witnesses and is traumatized, the child himself is at risk. If he gets help to process his trauma, he will be fine. But if he doesn't, he may end up re-enacting the trauma by beating his own wife.

So you are right that this child needs help. Yes, he needs a counselor as soon as possible. But his mother can also help him, by talking about it with him. She can explain that she did nothing at all wrong, that Daddy was drinking and Daddy is hurting so much inside that he cannot find his own love, so he lashes out in anger. Then she needs to make it safe for her son to tell her what he saw, and express his feelings about it. So she needs to tell her son the story of that terrible day.

"On that terrible day, Daddy got very angry. He was hurting in his heart and could not find his love. He had been drinking and his mind was not working right. He forgot how much he loves his wife and child. He forgot to control his own anger. He got so very angry that he shouted and hit. It was so scary. You were very frightened. Mommy was very frightened. It hurt Mommy. But Mommy protected us both. Mommy got us away. We are not going back to see Daddy unless he can stop drinking and find his love again. Now we will have a new life where we are both safe. I will always keep you safe."

That is the explanation but she also has to help her son cry. So when she says "It was scary" she might say "You were so scared, right? Tell me what you saw...Yes, you're right, Daddy was shouting so loud....I am so sorry I could not protect you....Where did you hide? What did you do?"

He probably feels guilty for not protecting his mom. She should tell him that it is the grownups' job to keep the kids safe, and he should always keep himself safe. Kids often feel it was their fault -- if they were better kids the abuser would stay calm. He needs to be reassured this problem is inside his father and has nothing to do with him. Finally, kids feel like they will be like the abuser. He needs to hear that everyone gets angry, but we always have a choice about whether to lash out. It is never okay to do what his father has done and hit another person in anger.

Please do everything you can to make sure your friend knows it was not her fault no matter what, and she should not go back. It is entirely possible that someday this man will kill her if she goes back. And if she cannot do this for her friend, she should know that if her son does not work this out, and if he sees more incidents, then he is at risk of growing up to be an abuser himself. So even if she cannot do this for herself, she owes it to her son not go back to that marriage.

Dr. Laura

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