Learning a New Parenting Language Yields Powerful Results in Stopping the Cycle of Abuse
It is natural to default to the methods we learn from our own caregivers, whether it’s cooking, money management, or parenting style. If you lived with an emotionally unavailable parent, or you lost the ability to parent effectively due to dealing with an abusive partner, creating a healthy parenting practice is hard!
As I shared in Parallel Parenting, this is especially challenging if you are still forced to interact with a toxic person. If you came from a toxic family of origin, you may be managing that relationship at the same time. Change is found in our ability to learn a new way of thinking and interacting – a new language for dealing with ourselves and our kids.
Statistics are Scary, but Not Final
My biggest fear once I got my daughters away from the daily abuse was that all those gloom-and-doom statistics would be our fate. My older daughter was the target of much of her father’s wrath, making her statistically almost predestined to be promiscuous, a drug user, drinker, behavior problem, and below average student. Don’t think that this did not routinely keep me awake nights. It was a glimpse into the future that sent me searching for a psychological vehicle rivaling Doc Brown’s DeLorean.
I was fiercely determined to stop the cycle of abuse and redirect this train wreck into a positive outcome for my girls. I took very specific steps that paid off.
Moving Through the Healing Phases Together
Similar to the Recovery Roller-coaster, improving your parenting and the functioning of your kids—even if that “kid” is you!—will come in phases. You will go through a shock phase, during which none of you feels like you know which end is up. Then there will be a puzzle phase—how do we put these pieces back together in the “new normal”?
Following that is what I think of as the baby steps phase. You’re moving forward positively through small steps taken routinely. It’s during these phases that you will likely face the biggest challenges in parenting your children and possibly re-parenting yourself at the same time.
Changing the Messages, One Conversation at a Time
I found that using analogies and scenarios that did not directly relate to me was the best way to have the conversations with my girls. At the ages of 7 and 11, they needed to be shielded from the horror of all the crazy he unleashed after we escaped. I had many gentle conversations with them using a frame of reference they could understand, typically related to a friend or a social context.
While I was hiding the fact that their father was refusing to use most of his visitation time, I tried to prepare them for the day when they would learn the truth. What I set out to do was to teach them to apply the same logic to anyone’s behavior, regardless of who that person was or is to them.
A Few Helpful Phrases
“So when your friend made plans with you and then didn’t show up, how did you feel?”
“I know when I was a kid, one of my friends said something horrible about someone I loved and I was really angry. I found out that the one girl was trying to make me not be friends with the other one because she was jealous. Has that ever happened to you?”
“It is completely understandable if you feel upset that your friends are going to the Daddy-Daughter Dance and you aren’t, but would you like for another man to take you so you can have some fun?”
“I think if I were in your shoes, which I never have been, I would feel (x, y, z). Is that how you feel?”
“What thoughts do you have about someone who calls you their friend and says they will do something but their words and actions don’t match?”
Being relaxed and conversational helps open dialogue, and using these non-directed types of thinking questions teaches your children to look beyond the surface of anyone’s actions. This includes the toxic parent’s behavior.
Situations Are Different, Tools Are Universal
I am the first to admit that my situation is unique. My children’s father took a job 1,000 miles away from the family home, which he negotiated in secret to try to isolate me again. When I filed for divorce because I knew it was our chance to get free (he was stuck for a year due to the relocation contract), he gambled that I wouldn’t go through with it. I recognize that not everyone has the benefit of having their abuser so geographically removed, which definitely aided my kids in their healing. The toxicity was limited to a few times a year! However, the manipulation and image campaign never stopped, and it kept them confused.
The tactics and techniques of the toxic person are universal, whether they are near or far. So, the tools you can use to help kids learn a healthy way of thinking are for everyone! What I can’t stress enough is how important it is to have non-emotional, critical thinking conversations with your kids.
Through this technique, my girls were able to thrive and to — surprisingly quickly — figure out the games they were being exposed to, all on their own. Most importantly, they mastered setting boundaries early!
Is This Some Psycho-Babble?
Honestly, I don’t know how I decided to tackle the problem this way, except that maybe it was working so well for my healing that framing the experience this way for them might work, too. In the process, I constantly examined how I was delivering the messages to them. I had always promised myself that there would be no interference from me in regard to what kind of relationship they chose with their father. My goal was to teach them to spot manipulation and lies.
Because of this, they have grown over the last 5 ½ years to examine everyone’s behavior using the same yardstick. The bonus? Nobody gets a pass, no matter who you are. Your conversations will have to be tailored to your child(ren), but so far everyone that I have suggested this approach to has been astounded at the positive outcome. There’s my unofficial, completely non-scientific research!
At the very least, my girls have tools I never had to help identify and avoid abusers. That alone is a great outcome!