Raising Children Who Have Experienced Domestic Violence
Raising children is difficult, without a doubt. There is no manual, no ability to prepare what you’ll face, and worst of all no way to know if you’re doing a good job. Things get tremendously more complicated when you’re faced with raising children who have experienced domestic violence. It’s hard to know what to say. You live life in a state of constant analysis, wondering if you’re doing the right thing. You worry about the future and what life your children will live. Help is often hard to come by. There are many who support, but few who understand. It’s a lonely, sad, and sometimes angry world.
When a child has lived through domestic violence they are a ticking time bomb. You never know when they might explode and divulge things you never knew. My daughter once said, “Mom didn’t leave dad because the house was in his name and she couldn’t kick him out”. This sentence was a stab to the heart. In essence, my child was stating that I was powerless to help her because her father controlled everything. Not only is this entirely not true (the man had such a bad credit/work history that literally nothing was in his name) but it was a way of blaming me for the experiences she had. To this day I don’t know if she was making an excuse for my weakness or simply explaining that I’m a weak person. I don’t know which is worse.
Talking to children about what they experienced becomes a tricky situation, especially when legal action is involved. At the legal level it is often written in divorce decrees that speaking negatively about the other parent is forbidden and to do so places one in contempt with the court. On a personal level, it’s difficult to explain to a child that their parent has done something to harm them. The older the child is, the harder it becomes for them to believe what you say. As kids age they begin to understand that people can be manipulative. They know that it’s possible to lie your way out of a situation and that sometimes people brag on how good they are to make themselves superior to the other person. Which type of person are you?
There are three things that happen in conversations with children about domestic violence. The first is when the parent doesn’t say anything bad about the other parent because they don’t want a child to think poorly about their parent. The problem with this approach is that the parent never addresses the wrongs that were inflicted upon the child and therefore make the child feel wrong for feeling victimized. The child’s feelings of being wronged are never validated and so there is a lifelong, secret struggle to understand what happened to them and why they are so affected. The second approach is to blame everything on the other parent. This is the worst approach as it forces a child to “choose” which parent is right and which one is wrong. Which parent should they support and which parent should they hate? If they don’t make the right decision they will never have trust or have a decent relationship with the blaming parent. The struggle goes on long into adulthood, sometimes for life. The third approach is the best, but also the hardest approach: tell the children the truth about what happened to them.
Telling the truth about domestic violence should be supported by professionals that are skilled in therapeutic approaches for children who have experienced trauma. The involvement of a third party allows the child to tell a neutral person what happened to them and to receive validation and understanding of their feelings. This way the parents are both out of the loop and do not influence the way the child feels about what happened to them. It’s a long process. It can take years. My child’s therapist advised me that the things that have happened to her will never be fully disclosed until she experiences her first intimate relationship. She said if sexual abuse has occurred it may be suppressed for years, often well into adulthood. This was the hardest thing for me to swallow. I had married a man who had scarred my children for life and I chose to stay with him and expose them to the abuse and it’s my fault. Ultimately, it is my fault. That’ a big, horrible burden to carry and often the number one reason I encourage victims to leave as soon as possible. The longer you stay, the harder it gets.
I often feel desperate because I put so much effort into my children’s therapy and doctor appointments and yet somehow it’s not helping. They still have days where they hate me. They still buy into their dad’s bullshit stories. They still desperately want his love and affection even though he is rarely around to give it to them. At the end of the day, I am still the weak one. I left; I stood up to him, and spent tens of thousands of dollars to save them from him. But at the end of the day I did not report him, he never went to jail for his crimes, and therefore I live with the fact that the court system can do little to help me. They can change the parenting plan but I cannot get away from him until my kids turn 15. And when that happens you bet your ass that I will never see his face again.
If there is anything others can learn from my mistakes, it’s that children see more than we know. Children understand, they hear, they spy, they know. I thought I had hidden most of the fights from my kids. But I was lying to myself. I knew that his screams and my screams were not muffled behind closed doors. Children are smart. They can sense when something is wrong. They know when they are being lied to. The earlier you leave the better. The smaller they are the easier it is to cope with change. Ask yourself: do you want your children married to someone who treats them like you’re being treated? We often tell ourselves that we will not make the mistakes our parents made but it happens regardless. Learned behavior is subliminal and it takes years to understand the choices we make.
Finally, get help. Talk to someone professional. There are services available by your state to help you pay for therapy. If you have been a victim of a crime you can present your case and receive enough money to cover your therapy. Contact your local victim center/child protective services office. A lot of people may not believe what happened to you but they will. They see it every day. And they will help. If you need guidance, don’t hesitate to reach out. I’m always willing to talk to people about what’s happened to them and give advice. I’m not a professional, I’m just a survivor. My opinions do not replace legal or professional advice. But I understand and having someone in your corner who understands is sometimes one of the most valuable things of all.