Helping Children Navigate Domestic Violence with Children's Author Ann Dix
Posted by Bijal Shah on
Ann Dix is a freelance dramatherapist, supervisor, writer and trainer. She has worked with children, schools and families for over 30 years. Ann has developed a programme for children who have experienced domestic abuse, based on her book, Little Mouse Finds a Safe Place (2012) published by Worth Publishing. Ann has published several papers and is currently Deputy Editor of the Dramatherapy Journal. She is co-editor of Dramatherapy with Children, Young People and Schools: Enabling Creativity, Sociability, Communication and Learning (2012) published by Routledge.
Today’s Author Q&A features Ann Dix. I am really excited to dig a little deeper into her book Little Mouse Finds a Safe Place. To help readers, get to know Ann’s work better and the premise of the book, we asked Ann five questions on how to help children navigate the deeply distressing subject and experience of domestic violence. Ann's book is the first children’s book on domestic violence that I have certainly come across and I wanted to share it with parents and children everywhere for who might be desperately in need of such a book. I hope you find the Q&A helpful and feel free to reach out either to Ann or myself should you have any questions (see contact details below.)
Q: Little Mouse Finds a Safe Place is a much-needed and welcome book for children facing domestic violence, so thank you so much for writing it. What inspired you to write it?
A: I was working as a therapist with children and families, when I became aware that domestic abuse was a factor in most of our referrals, although it was often not mentioned on the referral form. Most resources are aimed at adults and there was very little which was specifically for children. I decided to write a book for younger children (aged 6–11) that would explore the issues I talked about with them. The story is based on some of the experiences I heard from children and mothers.’ The story needed to reflect their experiences without re-traumatising them, but also to help open conversations for children who could not find the words. The book is about mice, with human emotions, which gives distance to the difficult theme. The book is primarily for younger children, although I know that it is also used, successfully, with teenagers. The book has suggestions for working with children at the back.
Q: What are some of the key themes and coping strategies that you would like children and young people to take away from it?
A: I want children to know that they are not alone, and that there is always someone to whom they can talk. There is now much more recognition of the effects of domestic abuse on children, and more professionals are trained to listen and put in place safeguarding procedures, but it is still a hidden issue, which is difficult to talk about. I chose a male character for Little Mouse, because I think it is important that we tell boys that it is ok to feel unsure and confused and that it is ok to talk to trusted adults. Little Mouse cries, gets angry and occasionally violent towards his female peers and this opens conversations about other ways of behaving. Both boys and girls relate to Little Mouse, and the message is that violence is wrong, but they might feel very angry and need help to express it. The children are always brilliant at making suggestions that might help him, based on their own experiences. I want children to know that it is ok to have a mixture of feelings and loyalties and that it is good to talk about them in a safe environment. I use a small mouse puppet (from The Puppet Company) alongside the book, so the children can hold and talk to Little Mouse. Sometimes they speak to him and sometimes they speak through him, so they do not have to say, “this is me.”
Some of the themes which come up often are:
Fear of violence: Children witness violent incidents, and even if they are not present, they sense the atmosphere and see the results — parents may cry, have bruises, things are broken, and if the mother is being coercively controlled, there may be silence, or threats.
Divided loyalties: Sometimes children are very clear about their loyalties to their mother (usually the abused parent). Often, they are abused too and may be very fearful. However, some have divided loyalties, and love their fathers, even though they do not like what they see happening. Pressure is put on some children to side with the abuser.
Secrecy: children do not want to talk about what is happening at home. Sometimes they have been told not to, are fearful of what might happen, and have witnessed such terrifying incidents that they shut them down and try to keep them out of safe places like school.
Loss: Children lose their sense of safety, their homes, pets, school, and friends. Sometimes they lose a parent and may not understand why they don’t keep in touch. Linked to this sense of loss is a huge sense of grief.
Q: How common is domestic violence in families with young children in the UK?
A: Statistics tell us that domestic violence is very common, and is probably underreported, although there is no accurate data. In the year ending March 2020, the ONS estimates that 1.6 million women aged 16 to 74 years experienced domestic abuse (ONS 2020). Women’s Aid suggests that one in seven (14.2%) children and young people under the age of eighteen will have lived with domestic abuse at some point in their childhood. 1 in 5 children in school will have experience of it.
Q: You work as a dramatherapist helping children and young people who have witnessed domestic violence, overcome the trauma of this. Could you give me an example of how you work with children/teenagers in a session(s)?
A: I have developed an 8-week group work programme based on this story, and other, unpublished stories. Each week we hear a story and talk about what happens. I play lots of games to help the children explore different ways of showing and talking about their emotions, such as dressing up as a feeling, creating dens and safe places for themselves and Little Mouse, and drawing pictures. After we have read Little Mouse Finds a Safe Place, I give the children a shoebox and ask them to create a safe home for Little Mouse. Each child is given their own mouse, which they can keep. It is fascinating to see how they build their houses from collage materials. There is usually a bed, TV, play station and food, but often defensive items — bubble wrap to deter burglars, and various protective factors, such as burglar alarms, barbed wire etc. The children talk to each other in the group, or just to me, if we are working one-to-one. It is important to begin and end each session with something which makes the children feel safe, so that their feelings are contained. The book reflects this, as it begins and ends in a ‘safe place’ — Little Mouse and his mother snuggled together.
Q: Where can people get your book and find out more about your work?
A: Little Mouse Finds a Safe Place is available to order from any bookshop, from Worth Publishing Ltd or Amazon UK. I offer talks and training. My conference speech to BACP is available on their website. Below are links to YouTube and Coursewedo.
Welcoming children who have experienced domestic abuse back into school after Covid-19 lockdown: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RomVLjuEKDA
Locked Down or Locked in? https://www.coursewedo.com/locked-down-or-locked-in
Secrets, shame, and distancing in working with children who have experienced domestic abuse: https://www.coursewedo.com/conversations-with-authors-ann-dix
Q: What’s next for you on the horizon in terms of further children’s books on mental health themes/projects that you are working on?
A:I hope to publish Megan Mouse: A Mother’s Tale, which is the same story, told from the mother’s viewpoint. I think this would help mothers recognise and reflect on their own experiences and be another useful resource. I have read it with clients, who have told me that it has given them a sense of hope. I am also in the initial stages of writing a book for schools, using Little Mouse as a way of exploring how they can support children. It will have stories and practical suggestions, based on current attachment and trauma-informed research.
Ann, thank you for taking the time to participate in our author Q&A. Such a helpful book, it will be valuable to both children and parents subject to domestic violence everywhere. Thank you also for sharing your other resources, including your webinars. We look forward to the next book Megan Mouse: A Mother’s Tale.
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