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The effect of domestic violence on cancer patients' children

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By Ginasenda Rodriguez and Stephen Collazo, Social Work Counselors

The effect of domestic violence on cancer patients children.JPGOctober is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Intimate parent violence (IPV), more commonly known as domestic violence, occurs any time a partner willfully hurts or threatens to hurt his or her partner in any way, physically, sexually or verbally. 

All too often, there are children present in the homes where this type of abuse occurs. 

Studies show that children who witness domestic violence against a parent while growing up have a higher incidence of mental health issues than the general population.

In the article "More Than You Might Think: Cancer Victims and Domestic Violence," we discussed some of the differences with how people diagnosed with cancer experience IPV compared to the general population.

Based on certain risk factors, we know that patients with cancer and other chronic illnesses are at a greater risk for IPV. Therefore, we can assume that kids whose parents have cancer may have a higher risk of being exposed to IPV in the home.

If you, as a parent with cancer, are in a situation where you're being abused by your partner, there are some strategies to help reduce or heal the emotional trauma your child may experience. Many of these tools are very similar to those that are recommended for helping children cope with a parent's cancer.

Ensure safety for your children
Developmentally, most children are at a stage where they're concerned with how any threat to their world, be it cancer or the abuse of one of their parents, will affect them. They need reassurance that there's a plan in place to take care of them, no matter what happens to their parent. 

When parents are diagnosed with cancer, we encourage them to explain to their children what their plan is if they're no longer able to take care of them. It's equally important in cases where a parent is experiencing IPV to develop a safety plan with the children about what they all will do to stay safe. A Child's Own Safety Plan is an excellent guide that can help parents and children develop a method to stay safe during a crisis.

Open communication and remove blame
Children look to parents to model how to cope with difficult situations. By not keeping communication open, parents can be inadvertently teaching their children that it's not OK to express their fears and other emotions in a healthy way. 

Open, honest, age-appropriate communication is very important in cases of domestic violence and a cancer diagnosis. As a parent, you know your children best and know what they're capable of understanding. So, it's a good idea to build trust by asking them how they feel and allowing them the space to express their emotions.

One of the most important conversations to have with your children in these cases is to explain that what's happening in their lives is in no way their fault. Children have a tendency to wonder what they could have done to prevent the current crisis. They wonder if their parent's cancer was because they misbehaved or they may wonder if their parent is abused because of something they did or didn't do. 

Keeping open lines of communication allows parents and children to work through this very difficult and sobering idea.

Use your support system

One of the strategies perpetrators of IPV use to continue their cycle of abuse is to isolate their victim from friends, family and the rest of their support system. 

Additionally, we know that patients who have support in their lives cope better with their illness and can even experience better health outcomes. So, in the cases of parents with cancer who are being abused, the support system becomes a critical safety tool for the children.

Helping children cope with a parent's cancer can be a very difficult and isolating experience for a mother, father or other guardian. However, the presence of IPV amidst a diagnosis can cause an even further sense of helplessness among parents. 

There's help available for this and other family related issues cancer patients may face. If you would like to talk privately with anyone at MD Anderson about any of these sensitive topics, please contact a social work counselor by calling the Department of Social Work at 713-792-6195 or visiting us online.

Also, the following resources can offer emotional, educational and safety support to people affected by intimate partner violence.

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