August is National Family Fun Month, and there is still time to celebrate! Falling at the end of the summer, August is a time to remember the importance of having fun together as a family and with others. But for families impacted by domestic violence, this can seem trivial and impossible to achieve.
At Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support, we see first-hand the effects of domestic violence on women and their children. When women arrive at our emergency shelter, they often walk in with little more than the clothes on their back. If they have been able to safety plan, they may have their important documents and a few personal belongings, but for the most part, they have had to walk away from everything in order to find safety and healing.

When surveyed, women at the shelter asked for the addition of more fun activities, and this shouldn’t be surprising: women who have lived or are living in abusive relationships often lose their sense of self, as well as the option to make decisions for themselves. After leaving the relationship, this is not instantly recovered; rather, it takes time and small steps to regain what was lost.

At Genesis, we strive to respect the survivors who come to us for help, recognizing that each woman is an individual who knows what is best for herself and her family. We know that sometimes when mothers are forced to use all of their energy simply to survive, an unintentional side effect creates distance between themselves and their children. To help encourage mothers to rebuild this bond, family game night was recently incorporated across our emergency shelter, transitional housing and outreach office. In the group session, mothers are encouraged to play a game or share a craft with their children, with staff present to help in any way needed. Family night has become one of the favorite groups at both outreach and Annie’s House.

Why does having fun matter?

Wikipedia defines fun as an experience often unexpected, informal or purposeless. It is an enjoyable distraction, diverting the mind and body from any serious task or contributing an extra dimension to it. So what does fun have to do with healing from domestic violence? Research surrounding the importance of play for children has been popular for decades, but information about the importance of fun for adults is gaining attention. The plethora of adult coloring books is an example of the increased attention to self-care for adults. Studies show that not only does fun increase motivation and relax the brain, but it also leads to better overall functioning in life.

In abusive relationships, the abuser often exerts power and control by setting rules. When a survivor has left the relationship and is able to set her own rules and make her own decisions, it can be liberating, but it can also be confusing and painful. For instance, a client shared with me the first time she took her teenage sons out to eat pizza. She sat and cried through the dinner and apologized to her sons, telling them she knew they needed to start doing fun things together, but it made her very sad to remember good times that were now lost in the past. Yet she knew she needed to make a start. Another client shared that when she was living with her abusive partner, she was always tense and on the alert, even when they were doing something fun together or with others. She never knew what might spark a violent reaction.

Breaking the isolation

Isolation is a natural result of living with domestic violence. It is more than physical separation from others – it is also emotional separation. Women who do not have children and women who have children who are not with them often face additional challenges in healing from isolation. Having fun and learning something new can break open the loneliness and start the process of reconnecting with self and others. This takes time: it is important to remember to be flexible, not to rush things, and if it’s too hard, take a step back.

For women who have experienced domestic violence, it all begins with self-care. We all need to take care of ourselves in order to be able to give to others. For a survivor of abuse, self-care may sound out of reach, or it may be just what she’s been waiting for. A survivor shared with me that the word self-care made her feel nauseous, so she decided to call it “gifting herself.” Simply by rephrasing it, she was able to take time for herself and try new things.

It takes courage to let go of past hurt and disappointments and risk having fun again. I am grateful I work for an organization that fosters healing for survivors of domestic violence.

Kristene Ruddle is a residential client advocate at Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support

Additional resources for family fun activities: