“My Brother Won’t Stop Hitting”: When Children Write about Abuse by Laura Shovan
My brother won’t stop hitting,
it’s like thunder in the walls,
my brother won’t stop hitting,
it’s like pouring rain drops…
I hold a child’s hand-written poem in my hands. The author – a long ago student from one of my poetry residencies – dated their writing March of 2005.
In ten lines, this elementary schooler describes being physically assaulted by a sibling, comparing the abuse to a storm that thunders, pours, clatters, and rumbles. I recognize the lesson: onomatopoeia poems. I must have flagged it for the classroom teacher, as required by the arts agency I teach for. When poems like this come up during my residencies, I have a strategy: acknowledge the pain (“this sounds like a really difficult situation”) and honor the writing (“the repeating line adds power to your poem”).
Sixteen years later, I still feel for this child and thank them for trusting me with their words.
Rereading the poem, which is both skillful and heart-breaking, I realized that educators and visiting authors don’t talk about what we do when a young person shares about abuse in their creative writing. How do we cope with our legal obligations, our empathy for the child, and the ways in which such writing triggers our own emotional responses?
I invited a social worker, a school counselor, and a classroom educator to start the conversation.
Kimberly Gillette, LCSW-C is a social worker working with adolescents and young adults. She recently left school social work to focus on meeting the needs of LGBTQ+ teens and young adults in private practice.
I was surprised at Kimberly’s response to the poem: “I wouldn’t have assumed it was reportable.”
What constitutes abuse can be a gray area, especially when it’s peer to peer or sibling to sibling. Kimberly said that whether you are a school-based educator or a visiting author, “When in doubt, share with somebody in authority.”
A school counselor is available to talk with the child and “figure out a little more about what’s going on at home,” Kimberly told me. The counselor will validate what the child has shared and that their writing will be held in confidence — unless the students is afraid for their safety. There might be a call home for a check in, with the caveat that some families and cultures aren’t comfortable with kids receiving mental health support.
So how do educators navigate a path between our role as mandated reporters and providing a safe place where children can write about difficult topics?
“Develop a rapport with your students so they know that you see them and you hear them and that you’re worried about them,” Kimberly said. “I wish we could hold space when they’re just venting… Sometimes I wish kids could share things without worrying that they’re going to be reported.”
The hardest part about being a teacher or counselor, she said, is that there are some kids you wish you could parent and keep safe. “At the end of the day you have to stay in your lane. All you can do is let them know you care.”
Christina June is a school counselor who also writes fiction for kids and teens. She is the author of IT STARTED WITH GOODBYE, EVERYWHERE YOU WANT TO BE, and NO PLACE LIKE HERE.
As a school counselor, Christina can do something that I can’t as a visiting writer. “I tell the kids ‘Everything you tell me is confidential unless you tell me that someone is hurting you, you’re hurting someone else, or you’re hurting yourself,’” she said.
Like Kimberly, Christina said her first step when creative writing raises a red flag is having a conversation. “I would ask them about it. I would see if they could elaborate…. Because sometimes kids do not understand what they’re writing” and how it might be concerning to adults.
Christina told me that teacher training around abuse has improved since I was a classroom teacher, thirty years ago. “The obligation is that every adult in the building … [is] a mandated reporter. There’s a fifty page document about neglect and abuse. It’s very clear that you have to hear things directly from the kid and if you suspect neglect or abuse [or suicide] you have to report it,” she said.
Christina pointed out that in some middle grade and young adult novels, adults at school are often portrayed as unhelpful, dismissive, or lacking in power. “In reality, there is a lot of power there,” for educators to step in and help a child. “Things are different now. Teachers are trained differently.” She recommended the website Kognito, which the state of Virginia uses for scenario-based teacher training in how to talk to kids in crisis. There is also a student version that guides children in how to talk to friends in need.
Christina encourages educators to work through the established processes. “By sharing the information, the student knows that I care about them.”
The last person I shared the poem with was Darius Phelps. Darius is a teacher who has given a TEDx talk titled, “Fingerprints Upon My Heart” and received “Georgia Child Caregiver of the Year” for 2016. His dream is to become a children’s book writer and illustrator, focusing on subjects such as anxiety, depression, and grief.
Darius sent me his response in written form:
All of us, no matter what the school or organization, are state mandated reporters. The statute requires a report to the Division of Family and Children Services and to make sure that the proper parties are aware on the school site, such as the counselor. Even if written in the form of a poem, this could be classified as child abuse and neglect.
I would respond to the author by asking them if they wanted to speak privately … and try to find out where the poem derived from without being too evident that I suspect potential abuse. First off, I would commend them for having the courage to speak up and convey that amount of deep emotion into their poem. Writing serves as a form of release and can be a solace to many, including both the writer and the reader.
I would want to ask the student how long has the abuse been going on with the “character” [in the poem] and why? This would allow me to get a sense of where the poem is coming from… I would potentially see if the student could tell more story in prose form, to collect more “evidence” and also allow the student to pour more of the story out, so it wouldn’t stay bottled up.
Self-care is essential. When a situation like this arises, I let myself feel. I don’t try to ignore or run from the emotions. I make time to be still, meditate, and process how I am feeling. When it comes to what I have for other educators, visiting authors, and people who work with young writers, I would advise them to do their best to be mentally and emotionally prepared to feel overwhelmed along with a plethora of emotions that come crashing down.
I’m grateful to Kimberly, Christina, and Darius for sharing their expertise and their personal responses to the hurt this young poet was expressing. Their feedback led me to make a change in my own teaching practice. When schools reopen and I begin doing in-person writing workshops again, I will be up front with classroom teachers about my role as a mandated reporter. I will acknowledge that encouraging students to stretch themselves as creative writers means I’m part of the conversation.
Laura Shovan is the award-winning middle grade author of The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, Takedown, and the Sydney Taylor Notable book A Place at the Table, co-written with Saadia Faruqi. Laura is a longtime poet-in-the-schools in her home state of Maryland.
I am both a YA author and a previous school SLP. Thanks for this article and for the varied perspectives. I would add that sometimes kids want us to share this information with the authorities. Sometimes they are asking for help and using the written word to do it.
Thanks for that comment, Carolee. Christina June mentioned that in our interview — many times kids who write about abuse or tell a friend are finding a way to ask for help.
What a necessary and important article. I agree with the first poster Carolee Dean that this kind of writing is often a cry for help. Sometimes, as mentioned in the article, creative writing is also the only way a child (or an adult!) feels they can somewhat safely process their abuse. The shame associated with being abused can be so acute that the child has never mentioned it in any way to anyone else. It’s a huge responsibility when authors and educators receive this kind of communication from the desperate heart of a child. I’m so glad you have brought this up and started the conversation in such a compassionate and thorough way.
Yes, often a cry to be heard and for help
This is a situation I am too familiar with as a gifted teacher of small groups. We write together and we create a safe community. I’ve been the reporter, the one counseling the child. It’s not a position that is comfortable for me, but I feel strongly that it is necessary, especially when encountering administrators who turn a blind eye in order to avoid difficult conflict. Thanks for this post. Thanks for being a part of the conversation.
I remember teaching fifth grade in NYC years ago and having a child use a poem to express suicidal thoughts. We were using the poem “I Have A Dream” by Langston Hughes and this child expressed his feelings of despair. His dream was for everything to be over, to be done with in his young life. I showed all the poems to my supervisor and she was the one who knew we had to report it. We contacted the child’s grandfather.
Thank you for sharing this post.