A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Code Word Safety — a way to handle some dilemmas kids have on visitation

Sharing custody with an abuser can be such a nightmare. Too often there is undermining, overt or subtle threats, silence that is always pregnant with fear and the unspoken understanding that nothing is as it seems. Living with this means you and your children have to continually find ways to stay safe; to stay one step ahead and MOST importantly, to band together and build trust between yourselves.

I had a situation come up recently that required this. How do you handle it when you’re on the phone with your child, while they are in the custody of your abuser, and you ask what you think is an innocent question, but that question, if your child were to answer honestly, would get him in serious trouble with the abuser? He feels forced to lie to you to keep from getting in trouble with the abuser on one hand, or he feels forced to tell you the truth and suffer consequences from the abuser on the other.

The bottom line is you are the safe one for your child and the choice then is really already made. You child knows you won’t hurt him and he is hoping you’ll understand why he had to lie. And you do. But what if you could find a way to both keep him safe and not force him to lie, because after all, we want to teach our kids good character, true?

So in this situation we were in, I asked my child what I thought was an innocent question and he lied. I found out later, in passing conversation with my other child, that he had in fact lied. I couldn’t blame him at all for that. He was staying safe, which is what I want for him. But I was still worried about the lying and the desperate place I had inadvertently put him in. I talked with someone I trust about it and that person suggested to me to give my children a code word. They could use this word any time I or my husband asked them a question that they couldn’t safely answer.

I immediately got to thinking about the possibilities with this. It would have to be a word or phrase that the kids could remember but innocuous enough that my ex wouldn’t pick up on it if they used it. It needed to be something my kids could easily work into a conversation, but would really only use it as a code at the same time. I had to think long and hard to come up with one that worked.

But it did. It worked so well. We taught and reinforced the code with the kids when they were with us, and the next time they had to visit their father, one of the children was already using it successfully. The abuser had no idea of the code.

So, now we have a phrase that has the power to free my children from an impossible choice, warn me of something serious going on for them, and bring us together in a small but significant way in the process. It makes my kids feel secure, even when I can’t be with them. This is because they aren’t forced into a terrible choice and I have found that it helps us feel just a little less far apart. It builds their trust and their hope. It’s a win on all sides. Our code is a phrase that is fun and transitions into a new topic of conversation for the kids in a casual way. That is what has worked for us.

What are some of the ways you keep your kids safe and stay one step ahead of the abuser in your life?


  1. Julie Anne

    This is great and very important. I use this kind of idea also when my children are going to spend the night away from home (at a sleepover, church camp). I’ve told them all about appropriate touch and inappropriate touch, but I’ve also told them that if for any reason they feel threatened or uncomfortable, all they have to do is call home and say, “I don’t feel well.” I will immediately come and pick them up without asking any further questions that might put them in further jeopardy.

    What I like about this simple sentence is that it is truthful – – while the potential abuser may interpret it to mean the child is feeling physically sick, the child and I know he/she is really saying they don’t feel emotionally well because of a threat or something else.

    Every time I know they will be spending a lengthy time somewhere away from home and away from me, I remind them of this way of escape. This gives them a plan of action to take rather than feeling like they have no control over the situation. Thankfully, they’ve never had to use it, but I look at this kind of like an emergency escape plan just like students have fire drills at schools. Having a plan gives children tools they can use when they are in a difficult situation.

  2. MicroGal

    Can you give an example of a code word or sentence?

    • Here is one that a woman living with her abuser might use to her supportive neighbour to let the neighbour know that the abuser is escalating and the woman feels in danger and wants the neighbour to take some action to help protect her (e.g. listen and watch, call the police if necessary, take the children for a while. . . or whatever).
      Victim calls her neighbour on the phone: “Muriel, do you have any vanilla essence? I’ve run out.”
      Or, “Muriel, if you are going shopping soon, would you mind getting some bread for me?”

      For kids, a code word would need to be something that could be slipped innocuosuly into any phone conversation. Maybe a word or phrase like ‘purple flowers’. Or ‘stupendous’. Or ‘fancy that!’ It has to be something that can be slipped into normal converation easily and casually, or perhaps an ‘in joke’. And something that would be inside the kids’ range of comprehension and vocabulary, but not something they would use inadvertently without it having the code meaning. It could be the name of one of their toys that they don’t take when they go on visitation. E.g. if they have a toy called Mr Giraffe, that could be the code. “Mum, did I leave Mr Giraffe out in the back yard?”

      Maybe I’m making it too complicated. I’m only thinking off the top of my head, but hopefully that will give you enough ideas to get your own creative juices flowing.

  3. StandsWithAFist

    These are all such good ideas & and excellent post. Even the military uses code words! For little ones, asking about the weather is “normal” conversation; like “How’s the weather there?” Even in the same town, the weather can be different across town, so asking “is it windy there?” might mean that the abuser is talking a lot; asking if it’s raining might mean they feel like crying; a sunny day may mean everything is ok, etc. As my kids grew older and we had more in-depth talks about sensitive, serious subjects that we needed to stay private (meaning, something NOT to be discussed with the abuser) we used “FBO”, which meant “Family Business Only”. (Of course we defined “family” as NOT including the abuser, or anyone else who did not live with us.) We never said “FBO” in the hearing of the abuser, only in private. My kids are now adults but we still use “FBO” and it carries the weight of something to be held in confidence, something private and not to be discussed with others for the safety of all. Code words are powerful.

  4. Happy2bHere

    This is great something I can try out. I will share this with my teenage son. He can use this if uncomfortable any place and doesn’t have to get into detail then or later (he usually doesn’t like talking about what’s bothering him). I’m thinking this will help him feel secure that he doesn’t need to explain and I will get him out of wherever. I have taken him to a counselor and I think he’s just tired of talking about the same old situation. I don’t know, but it’s sometimes how I feel I don’t always want to talk I just want a real change. But that’s in a perfect world I guess! When my youngest can speak I will teach her too especially when we eventually leave. For me, sometimes just knowing there are certain actions I can take give me energy so maybe it will give some power to my children.

  5. twbtc

    Here is some information about family safety code words. Can be applied to abuse situations or safety situations in general.

    A word about family safety code words [Internet Archive link]

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