In my last blog, I talked about how seeing or experiencing domestic violence affects the lifelong health of children. Today, I explore this further. This is a tough topic, something about which no protective parent wants to think. However, I believe this is vital information, and could actually help you make some decisions for yourself and your child(ren). This information comes from my book A Journey to Healing After Emotional Abuse.
Effects of Your Abuse on Your Children
Though you have done everything you could to protect your children, the sad truth is, your children have been affected, even if your abuser focused his* abuse mainly on you. In order to help your children heal, you will need to accept some difficult truths, without denial.
- Your children were more aware of your abuse than you might care to think, even if you tried to hide it. How do children find out? Many ways: they could tell you were upset; they see signs of strain in the home; see signs of fighting; or see or hear the actual abuse.
- Your children have been afraid, even if they never appeared to. They will often hide their fear to prevent further abuse, or to spare you because they can tell you are already burdened enough. Their fear could present itself in many ways, which are outlined in Lundy Bancroft’s book When Dad Hurts Mom: Helping Your Children Heal the Wounds of Witnessing Abuse. These include overeating or refusing to eat; nail-biting, teeth grinding, outbreaks of acne or eczema; frenetic or distracting activity (rocking, tapping, jumping, chewing, or the obsessive need to do sports); developing phobias or compulsive behaviors (fear of monsters or strangers, or needing to wash their hands constantly); retreating into fantasy worlds; sleep disturbances (sleeping in excess, difficulty falling or staying asleep, nightmares, night terrors, night talking, or night walking); or regressive behavior (potty “accidents,” clinging to“lovies”).
Sometimes these children will be diagnosed as having ADHD, and will be put on medication. This might be helpful, but they should more correctly be viewed as trauma survivors who need safety and healing more than medication. Sometimes children’s fear and trauma responses can look quite similar to yours.
- Younger children almost always think they are to blame for the abuse. “If I had only picked up my toys, Dad wouldn’t have gotten so mad,” or, “If I had been a better girl, Dad and Mom would still be together.” Children will often choose one of two extremes when they feel guilty about causing the abuse or divorce. They will become the “perfect” child and excel in school, sports, or church activities, or they will become the “bad” child. This child will do everything possible to prove just how bad he or she is, and fail at school, get in trouble with the law, or act out at home. The perfect child is trying to do everything possible to prevent the abuser from finding fault with you and her in order to limit the number of abusive outbursts. The bad child behaves badly subconsciously to bring all the abuser’s negative attention to him and away from you, to protect you.
Children’s beliefs that they caused the abuse or can control/decrease/stop it can be both hurtful to the child and also developmentally appropriate. Children are supposed to be narcissistic and engage in magical thinking to a certain extent. If something good happens in their life, they often believe it is because they wished it to be, or because they are so good or smart. This can make life feel exciting. However, the flip side of this is they often believe they cause negative things that occur in their world. Even kids in elementary school who will first tell you they did not cause their parents’ divorce will often later confide that they still feel like it is their fault.
You can help your children by frequently telling them the abuse was not their fault. Tweet This
Let them know your abuser is entirely responsible for his actions, no matter what others do around him. Let them know that adults do not get to blame their behavior on their children.
4. Children interpret the abuse in ways that may not make sense to you.
- They may say, “I heard if your dad hits your mom, police come and put you all in jail,” or, “Mommy was crying because I didn’t do what Daddy told me to do, and then he yelled at her and called her a bad name. She’s very angry with me for making Daddy yell at her like that.”**
- They may tell stories from the past, but their version is vastly different from reality. In the stories they may make the family sound as if things were ideal when you and your abuser were together. They are romanticizing the family concept as they grieve the loss of their family. I was surprised during my divorce when my kids described life in our home as “Our parents were always mad at each other,” rather than the way I saw it: “Whenever Dad doesn’t get what he wants, he gives Mom the silent treatment.”
5. Once you have left your abuser and have experienced some peace, your children may react in surprising ways.
- They may begin to feel safe to act out the trauma they have experienced. Children who previously acted “perfectly” to prevent the abuser from harming you and them may now begin to act disrespectfully. They may show the anger, sadness, and confusion they hid for so long.
- They may begin to idolize your abuser. Once they no longer live with the daily abuse, they may forget how badly he used to behave. If they rarely see him, they may miss him, even though he was not a kind person when they lived with him. The memory of his abuse is fading; they begin to see him in a different light.
- Even though they may realize their father was abusive, they will feel caught in the middle between the two of you, their loyalties divided. They may begin keeping secrets from you or be reluctant to tell you things their father has said.
These truths may be painful to think about, but don’t shrink back. There will be a lot you can do to help your children heal once you understand what they’ve suffered. Remember, you are not responsible for the abuse they suffered; that responsibility lies with your abuser. However, you are the best person to help them heal, because no one else will step up to do this, especially not your abuser. He will probably forever deny he has done any harm to any of you.
Question: What behaviors do your children exhibit?
Being a protective parent in an abusive relationship can be very painful, as you try to decide what is best for all of you. Remember, Psalm 127:3 says,
Children are a heritage from the Lord,
offspring a reward from him.
Seek God for strength and wisdom in this difficult time. In my next blog, I will share some ideas for seeking healing for your kids when you leave the abusive relationship. Until then, may the Lord bless you.
*Abusers and their victims can be male or female.
**When Dad Hurts Mom, 64.