It’s no secret to anyone who has either survived a toxic family or escaped an abuser with their children that the effects of this experience are permanent. There does not have to be physical violence, or even raised, angry voices for damage to be done. A parent can wield the sharpest of knives simply by opening his/her mouth and that knife can wound a child so deeply that it is never forgotten. Statistically, a child who grows up in an emotionally and/or physically abusive home (including neglect), is at much higher risk of early drug and alcohol use, sexual promiscuity, and school failure.
So how do you take steps as either a parent or adult survivor to break this cycle and shape a happier, healthier life?
A great quote was posted recently to the SwanWaters Facebook group, in which a son asked his father how he knew the way to be a good parent when his own parents had been so neglectful. The father answered that he just did the things he knew he had longed for. I think that concept is a great jumping off point to discuss three specific ways you can help your child detox from an abusive parent.
What Constitutes Abuse?
Let’s start by considering what constitutes abuse using this memorable dialog from the movie The Breakfast Club:
“Your parents. Is it bad?”
“What do they do to you?”
Abuse can take many forms and have many types of impact, but for the sake of clarity, we will say that abuse is any behavior intentionally manifested by one person that causes psychological or physical damage to another. So how do you help break the cycle?
#1 Empathy Is Everything
Research has shown time and time again that the one thing missing from the makeup of an abuser is the ability to feel empathy for another person. Some disguise this as superiority or the concept of parental entitlement. I’m not going to get into the whole corporal punishment debate except to say that any punishment of any kind which is exacted in anger crosses the line into abuse. That said, if your child has been abused by a parent, your best weapon is that which the abuser doesn’t have: empathy.
Imagine yourself in your child’s shoes and consider, what would you want? Someone to just listen to you? Someone to correct your behavior by explaining how it could hurt you? Someone to assure you that even when you screw up you are loved? Although I am a naturally empathetic person, I had to work hard to put myself in my daughters’ shoes and ask, “What would it feel like to understand that my father was abusive, then left, then made it so my mom couldn’t provide for us?” In all interactions with my girls, I learned to stop and ask myself, “What would I want if I were in this situation?”
#2 Take the Long View
Yes, your child has a lot of healing to do. The better way to spin that is: you have the opportunity to purify your child’s view of himself/herself by grounding them with your consistency. Have whatever rules you need and want to have in your home, but be consistent, make sure the rules are not fear-based, and explain the rules.
A child of abuse has enough uncertainty with the abuser and needs to know exactly what behaviors will have what consequences. These are not threats; these are clearly stated parameters which help the child know what you expect. The importance of predictability in this instance can’t be overstated.
#3 Learn to Tell Parables
I’m not kidding. It is never a good idea to blatantly criticize or demonize the other parent, no matter how horrendous they are. Instead, you can learn to tell stories in such a way that the child can (and will) begin to superimpose the other parent’s behavior for assessment. Make no mistake, this takes a long time. However, this is a way of teaching life lessons that not only helps in the present with peers, but helps the child to see that they aren’t imagining how badly the other parent makes them feel.
For instance, once when my kids knew that Captain Crazy was supposed to have them for the weekend and he didn’t show up, I didn’t go off and emote about what a rotten parent he is. (Truthfully, I was thrilled to keep them.) Instead, I waited until the next day and told them a story about how I had a special date once that didn’t show up and didn’t call (secret: it was Captain Crazy). I got all dressed up, excited, told my girlfriends, and then sat in my living room for 5 hours waiting (back in the day when there weren’t cell phones).
I crafted the story in such a way that it was clear I did nothing wrong and that it was very hurtful behavior. The bonus is that the first time a boy did this to one of my girls, she dropped him like a hot rock and never looked back.
Giving Them Wings
These are just 3 of the tools I learned for helping my daughters begin to detox from the experience of their other parent. Trust me that the 2 weeks following each once-every-4-months visitation were hell. They were emotionally strung out and needed to be absolutely sure that I was a consistent presence of love and guidance. Was it easy? Absolutely not. We had our share of tears and frustrations, including me having to go hide and scream when they would say things like, “Dad says you won’t let us come see him more” when he was actually skipping half his visits. At the time, I thought we would never see the light, but we did.
Scars still remain and likely always will, but the difference is that they know why they feel what they feel and have grown into their ability to openly work through those feelings. You can give them their wings.