As a survivor of domestic violence and mother of two, one of my biggest concerns is how the abusive home in which they grew up – and in which they now spend every other weekend – will affect them. I know the statistics around how children from abusive homes are more likely to become abusers or victims themselves. I’m determined to make sure that the cycle does not perpetuate itself with my children.
How to actually do that was not always very clear to me, especially since they still have visitation with their father. Additionally, there is this thing that is drilled into the heads of divorcing parents, “never badmouth your ex to your child. They are still your children’s parent and they have a right a good relationship with them.” While I am not dismissing that advice, it does not take into consideration the issues those of us dealing with abusive exes have. We live in a very different reality than other types of divorcing parents.
When I left my abusive marriage, or more truthfully, once I was in therapy and began the healing process, I promised myself that I would never again live a life of lies and secrets and I most certainly would not lie for my ex or cover up his behaviors any longer. Honesty, authenticity and openness, especially with my children, became mandatory for me. Trying to figure out how to balance that with all of the co-parenting mandates that the family courts thrust on divorcing parents was a challenge. It felt like I was walking a tight rope.
Many of my children’s father’s behaviors and attitudes were not ones I was going to tolerate in our new home. Much of his treatment of them was unacceptable and hurtful. Then we also had to deal with how his behavior rubs off on them. Either by imitation, irritation or exhaustion, they would think they could speak to and treat me and each other more harshly when they returned home from their father’s house. How on earth is a mother, who is trying to raise her children to understand that abuse and violence are wrong, supposed to do that while they spent a large portion of their time in an environment where both were considered perfectly normal, even celebrated?
Self-Care and Boundaries
I was initially overwhelmed by the whole idea, but slowly started to lay some groundwork that would eventually move all of us forward into the healthy and respectful place we are today. That work included:
· I began by working hard on myself to ensure that I was setting the example and modeling the kind of behavior I wanted them to emulate. This wasn’t always easy. I was struggling with PTSD and their behaviors would often act as triggers. The more like their dad they sounded or acted, the more likely I was to react, instead of respond. This was how I knew that I had to start with me.
· I had to learn how to deal with my triggers, how to set healthy boundaries, how to stay out of the kids’, and their dad’s, drama triangles and not create my own. Becoming a whole, healthy, non-violent person was the best way to show my children that, not only is it possible to live and be different than what we had been and lived with, in the past, but also that doing so is desirable. I do not pretend that any of that this wasn’t difficult or that I did so quickly or without incident. It was work. A lot of challenging, personal work, but I needed to do it for myself and them. I needed to ensure that I was practicing what I was preaching. In conjunction with my work on myself, there were some basic ground rules put in place in our home that are never negotiable. These are the rules through which all behaviors are filtered
Rule number 1: Always tell the truth.
Rule number 2: Treat people with the respect with which you want to be treated. This allowed us to cover much of the undesirable behavior without having to have a long list of “don’ts.” Yes, there are a few other rules about bedtimes and grade expectations, but those came after the first two and, to be real, are often negotiable.
Both of these rules were initially difficult for the kids as they spent 50 percent of their time with their father, who was consistently telling them to lie to me and who never respected anyone. These were seriously mixed messages for a 10- and 13-year-old. When one of your parents says “What happens in this house, stays in this house” and “We have a triangle of trust between the three of us and you must not break it” while the other parent is telling you the importance of openness, honesty, respect and integrity, it can be very confusing. For me it felt like every time we made a little progress, they had to go back to their dad’s and would come home right back where we started, if not worse. Something had to change, if I was going to keep my children from growing up to be statistics.
Honesty and Openness
Luckily for me, our final mediation meeting resulted in my having the children about two thirds of the time despite the 50/50 custody agreement. Once the children were spending less time with him I had the opportunity to teach them why their father’s attitudes and behaviors were not things they should be emulating.
Now some might feel, and many have told me, that these conversations constituted “bashing” their dad. To me my children needed to understand what abuse was, the reasons it was unacceptable and how to protect themselves from their dad’s manipulation. As survivors, I believe we have an obligation to our children to stand up, tell the truth of what happened to us, even if that truth puts the other parent in a bad light. We have the right to help our children protect themselves while in the care of their abusive parent. Doing so without “bashing” the other parent can, like I said, feel like walking a tight rope, but it is possible to accomplish. Focusing on the behaviors, rather than the individual, explaining the cycle, pointing out patterns without calling names or making the child feel badly about still loving their parent are imperative to making your point, without alienating your child from their other parent.
We can be open and honest without being accusatory or nasty. When you see teaching moments, take them, even if the example of the bad behavior is their parent. Children are smarter and far more perceptive than people like to give them credit for; they will understand, if the information is presented in the right way. How can we expect children to grow up differently than their abusive parent or avoid becoming the partner of an abuser, if we never explain the dynamics of abuse and abusive relationships? Abusive behavior patterns and victim mentalities can become rooted in the brain at a very early age. Providing children with age appropriate information can empower them to challenge what might seem normal and acceptable to them otherwise.
Examples and Mentors
Another key piece to helping children of survivors grow up to be non-violent adults or becoming victims themselves, in my experience, is to surround them with solid examples of healthy adults and healthy relationships. Some of the most meaningful changes, in both behaviors and attitudes that I have seen in my children have happened because of the relationships they’ve developed with some truly incredible adults. Exposure to and time spent with different types of people, most specifically, kind, generous, patient, respectful, intelligent men and strong, intelligent, empowered women, have provided my children with examples of people they want to be like.
They now understand that strength lies in compassion, not control. They now believe that showing empathy, kindness and respect are not a sign of weakness but of being a good person. They now grasp that they have the power to choose their own behavior and can choose to avoid abusive patterns. Providing them with great role models has allowed them to draw their own conclusions about who they want, and don’t, want to be when they grow up. The kids and I have been gifted with an incredible extended family through my new relationship, one that has forever altered the course of their lives by providing them with wonderful examples of what it means to be a healthy family. This, in addition to the healthy relationship they now witness between me and my boyfriend, and many other members of his family and our core group of friends, provides them a road map for a healthy future. One that I know I was not given growing up and that I can already see making a difference in my kids.
Raising children who began life in an abusive environment, when you yourself were a victim of that abuse as well can be a daunting task, but when you practice self-care first, to ensure that you are able to give your kids what they need, when they need it and provide a healthy example, set healthy boundaries for both yourself and them while surrounding them with people that are worthy of emulating, you stand a much better chance of helping them grow up to be non-violent adults who are also able to avoid becoming victims. As survivors we have different parenting experience, with different concerns and obligations than many of the parents we know. That’s okay. Not everyone will or needs to understand why we do the things we do or make the choices we make, because at the end of the day this journey is ours. You are doing the best you can with where you are and what you know in the moment, just like everyone else.