Therapy centre will use art, storytelling and drama to help children cope with their ordeals The silent victims of domestic violence - the children - are the focus of a new initiative in the planning by Harmony House, a shelter for those who have suffered abuse. Even when children are not on the receiving end of the violence, they are still victims. Repeated exposure to such abuse conveys to them the message that using violence is acceptable. Margaret Wong Fung-yee, Executive Director of Harmony House, says the institution is planning a pilot project offering peer support and therapy for such children. 'Talking about their experiences with other children will let them know they are not alone,' says Ms Wong. 'The therapy project will use different tools to help children compared to those used for their mothers, as it is even more difficult for them to verbalise the abuse,' she says. 'They will use art, storytelling and drama to express their emotions and to talk about their experiences. We will show them different ways to interpret their emotions.' After witnessing domestic violence, children often suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome, in which they replay violent acts over and again in their minds. 'They feel they must have done something wrong to cause the problems between their parents. 'They believe they are to blame and often try to protect their mothers. This causes more danger to themselves. 'The boys see their fathers beating up their mothers and grow up believing it is a normal situation, and the girls think it's all right to be beaten up by their husbands.' To minimise post-traumatic stress syndrome, all children who arrive at the shelter are screened by observing their behaviour in social interactions. 'We talk to the kids about their exposure to the violence. For those who need intervention, we open a case file. We are hoping to initiate a more intensive therapeutic process to support children who meet family violence at home,' Ms Wong says. Schools also have an important role in supporting children who witness domestic violence. Teachers can often identify whether a child's behaviour and learning is being affected at home. 'With identification, schools can refer the children to NGOs or to Harmony House for help,' says Ms Wong. 'Schools can also provide a sense of stability for the children who feel unsafe at home. We want to work closer with schools for early identification of these cases and to teach them how to support these kids.' Ms Wong also believes schools have a duty to teach their students how to nurture relationships. 'There is a lot of focus on academic achievement, but very little on the social aspects of life and gender-role stereotyping.' Without social skills development at an early age, Ms Wong believes many will not be able to deal with the stresses of relationships or other complications in later life. 'We teach kids road safety in school. We should also teach kids about relationship-building as it is also a safety issue for them; physically and emotionally. 'We are looking into this area and getting information from the States and Canada where similar programmes have been implemented in schools. We want to move in that direction. 'Children witnessing violence is a very important issue. To nip the problem in the bud, we need to address it now. 'What we really want to do is to start a Harmony Centre to help children exposed to domestic violence. However, we are limited to what we can do now due to lack of resources,' she says. Established in 1985, Harmony House started as a shelter for battered women and children. Now it has expanded its services to include community education and batterers' treatment programmes. For more information, contact Harmony House on 2342 0072.