Danny is frightened of his dad. Every night he goes to bed and pretends to be asleep. He listens to his dad mistreating his mum. Danny thinks his life is normal until he goes on a sleepover at his best friend Alex’s house. Alex’s dad is kind and fun to be with, and Danny feels happy. Danny wishes his dad could be more like Alex’s dad. But what can he do?
Children are the smallest, often most silent, victims of domestic violence.
Now, there is a children’s book to help young people trapped in situations of domestic and family violence. Brave Danny is written to empower kids aged between four and eight to talk about their feelings, to teach them what a happy, safe family can look like.
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“The smallest voices are sometimes the most powerful,” author of Brave Danny Robin Adolphs, who also has a background in education, told Mamamia. “It’s important we help young people understand what domestic violence looks like – we need to break the cycle. Children are capable of learning and understanding a lot. What better way to learn about domestic violence than in a loving, caring way?”
The book, written by Adolphs and illustrated by Nicky Johnston, is an initiative of the National Rural Women’s Coalition (NRWC) and came after reports of increasing domestic violence in remote Australian communities.
“Domestic violence is an issue rearing its head in bush communities, particularly when natural disasters such as fires and floods occur,” NRWC Treasurer Alwyn Friedersdorff said. “When those things happen, domestic violence tends to creep in. We wanted to send a message to the youngest age group possible, to help build resilience to domestic violence at the earliest age.”
But what message can you send to children who are so young?
According to Adolphs, it’s about awareness. Teaching the simple, heartbreaking lesson that being frightened at home is not ‘normal’.
“When children are this little, they have very small world and they only know what’s in this world. How are they going to learn, if they don’t know any different?” Adolphs said.
“The only way we can help them is by talking,” she continued. “If children learn about domestic violence through experience, they’re often too frightened to talk. We need to open the conversation in a different way and encourage positive responses and positive decisions. Otherwise, their behaviour will be affected. They’ll become withdrawn or start acting out. This can lead to learning difficulties. These children will grow up thinking their life isn’t happy, and that this is normal.”
Brave Danny tells the story of Danny, a young boy who is in a domestic violence situation but doesn't yet know it. "He loves his parents," Adolphs said. "He doesn't know what's happening is wrong."
Every night Danny falls asleep hearing his mum being abused.
"I had to do a lot of research about the different forms of domestic violence and the types of perpetrators," Adolphs said. "I had to choose what type of violence to portray - I chose emotional violence from the father, directed towards the mother. There is also an implication through text and illustration of some physical violence, too. I choose the dad as the abuser because that is consistent with statistics. I counteracted this by having a good dad in the story as well."
The "good dad" is introduced when Danny stays a friend's house for a sleep over. "That’s when he discovers a different kind of dad," Adolphs said. "His friend’s dad is wonderful. Plays cricket. Cooks dinner. Danny doesn't hear shouting as he falls asleep, just soft music."
Imagine the guilt involved, when a young person finds himself happier in another person's home. A child having these feelings, finding such comfort and happiness with someone else's father, is not going to feel good about having these thoughts. This is something Adolphs and the NRWC tried very, very hard to mitigate.
"The book says: 'I wish my dad could be like Alex’s dad'. This is implying Danny still loves his dad, he doesn't want a new dad," Adolphs said. "Children in these situations can't do much - what can a four or eight year old really do? - so they carry a burden of guilt and they feel trapped."
The empowerment, Adolphs says, is in talking about feelings.
The next day at school, Danny's class is visited by the 'Life Boys' ("I thought of that name while standing over the kitchen sink," Adolphs says). The Life Boys teach children to identify and listen to their feelings. To help them understand good feelings and bad feelings and how they're linked to actions.
When the Life Boys leave, Danny makes a disclosure to his teacher. 'I’m frightened of my dad'
He goes home and talks to his mum, who tells him 'You made me feel brave too' and decides to get help. "I couldn't put all the responsibility on Danny, he shouldn't feel any guilt," Adolphs says.
The book ends with Danny holding his little toy giraffe and the simple phrase: 'We're going to be safe now.'
"I didn't include a specific ending about what happens to dad, because there are so many options and possibilities," Adolphs said. "I had to make it one boy's story, but also make it generic. One size fits all. This book is not linked with any particular ethnicity or status, it's for any child who's in a domestic violence situation."
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Brave Danny was launched in Melbourne yesterday. The book will then be taken around the country and presented to teachers and educations.
It's designed to be read by teachers to students, and the website www.nrwc.org has a range of resources to help teachers who suspect a child is a victim of domestic violence. There are worksheets for children, tips for reading the book, and questions a teacher might ask after reading each page. There are different responses to look out for, and the next steps to take.
"It’s a tool (I don’t like that word, it sounds so workman-like) to open the topic of domestic violence in a safe and supportive way," Adolphs said. "If a teacher thinks a little girl or boy is being abused, it's very difficult to ask the question outright – you can’t do that. To have a little book, where you can talk about another child, it will help open a a complex, emotive topic in a non-threatening way."
"This book is about the smallest voices but, if a little voice does speak out, there needs to be someone to hear it."