Q: I have been put in a unique situation that's been getting worse and worse over the past several years. My mom passed away from cancer two years ago. After she was diagnosed, my dad began taking his anger out on me and my brother. He would yell at us and force us to do emotionally traumatizing things, such as boxing up our old toys and storing them in our moldy basement where we would not get access to them again for years, if ever (we were 12 at the time).
We’ve since learned that our dad had been putting our mom through a cycle of emotional abuse for decades. After she passed, our dad sold the house that my siblings and I grew up in. Our new place consists of two separate apartment rooms. My sister graduated college a few weeks before our mom passed away, and instead of being able to get a job, she has had to work as both emotional support for my brother and me and the one who had to clean up the house and get it ready to be put on the market while my brother and I go to school. She also has to pay our dad $1,000 a month just to live with us. Meanwhile, he constantly brags about making money in the stock market and uses the "I'm old and tired" card as an excuse for why he doesn't help us.
I recognize that my dad is abusive, and the life he is giving us is not the one my siblings and I deserve, nor was the life he gave my mom what she deserved. I want justice—justice for my mom, my sister, and my brother and me. But I don't know how yet.
I'm hanging in there as best as I can, but I have had some really bad days. No serious physical harm has been done to my siblings or me and I have counseling weekly. However, the emotional weight of it all has been getting to me so much that I cry for hours at a time, or start feeling vengeful, and I just want to do something to get this world of burden off of my siblings and me. Is there anything that I can do to end this cycle of abuse? I fear that tensions are rising quickly, and that an incident will happen as a result.
You’re right — this doesn’t sound like a life you deserve. A parent’s job is to care for their children’s physical and emotional needs and your dad isn’t doing that as well as he should. No one should live in fear of a potentially volatile incident at home, not to mention while also navigating the grief you undoubtedly feel after losing your mom. That’s a lot for anyone to take on, especially as a teenager.
Domestic violence is tricky in that it can be masked as love or family and take on certain aspects that look like caring but actually are all about control. It sounds like your father might want to keep the three of you close to him as a form of control but, to outsiders, could frame it as a single dad who’s doing his best to take care of his children. What’s important is that you listen to your gut instincts—if you don’t feel safe and secure, then the situation isn’t right.
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It’s especially hard when it’s a parent doing this, someone who is supposed to love you unconditionally. As a parent myself, I could never imagine something that would drive me to intentionally traumatize my children. Who knows what demons your father is currently battling—childhood trauma, mental illness, addiction. Regardless of these circumstances though, abuse is always a choice. Your father cannot blame his abusive actions on any outside forces, previous trauma or anything you’ve done. Abuse is never a survivor’s fault, please remember that. It is a deliberate choice on the part of the abuser.
Let’s talk about your options. Luckily, it sounds like you have a support system in your brother and older sister. I would recommend that the three of you discuss what you’d like to do together and make sure everyone feels empowered by the choices you make going forward. (In a situation where abuse is occurring, you don’t want to have any survivor feel forced into a choice, even a positive one, as it mimics the control of the abuser.)
Maybe you recommend to your siblings that, together, you reach out to a trained domestic violence advocate in your area who can help you “on the ground” as they say. An advocate can be a stable adult figure in your life that can help you navigate what may come next. Find one by going to our Find Help page and entering your ZIP code. A list of nonprofits will appear, most with 24-hour helplines for you to call. If you’re nervous to call, read our piece about What to Expect when calling a hotline. Make sure you’re calling from a place where your dad isn’t—a friend’s house, a public phone, school, work or even a doctor’s office (if you ask, they should let you make that call there).
You don’t have to disclose personal details to an advocate, but if they’re worried about the abuse at home becoming violent, they may ask you for your name and address in order to contact child protective services. This doesn’t mean your dad will be in trouble, it just means CPS may send a caseworker out to check on you and your brother.
Secondly, you’ll want to consider safety planning. The advocate you call can help you do that, or you can reference our Safety Planning Worksheet here and DIY it. This will help you feel prepared if a volatile incident, like you mentioned, occurs. You can pre-plan who you might call (of course, call 911 immediately if you’re ever in danger) and where you might go if you need to leave. Hopefully, there is someone you trust that you can call on. If not, you may want to ask the advocate about shelter, which will be tricky (but not impossible) to go to if you’re a minor. (See this page for the different state laws on seeking emergency shelter as a minor.)
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Which brings us to an option called emancipation, a court order you can file that allows you to make choices on your own behalf without your father’s permission (such as leaving to go to a shelter or living with another relative or friend). This may be something your father allows as it will take the responsibility off of him to care for you. Talk to your advocate about lay legal help that may exist to help you do this, if it’s something you’re interested in.
There may also be a way for your older sister to obtain legal custody of you and your brother (see this page for more info). This could also be something you consider if you feel like the three of you would be better off living together but independently from your dad. This might sound scary, but if it means staying safe and staying together, it could be an option you want to consider exploring.
Of course, besides all this legal stuff, which may sound pretty heavy on top of the mayhem you’re already dealing with, I hope you also know self-care is of the most importance. Grief can come in waves. You may feel OK one day and burst into tears the next. It’s normal. This article lists 13 ideas for dealing with emotional turmoil, among them, practicing self-compassion, journaling your feelings and remembering, always, that these traumatic events don’t define you. Take time to imagine your future—it won’t always be like this. Start planning for what you want your new, healthy future to look like.
It may also help to read about people who have come from childhood abuse and gone on to thrive as adults. Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, Jewel, Missy Elliot, Drew Barrymore and MLB player Joe Torre among, sadly, many others. Many of these people went on to use their experiences to help save others from abuse.
You may also want to read up on ACEs, or Adverse Childhood Experiences. The higher one’s ACE score is, the more at risk you can be for future health issues. This means it is especially important now, and in the future, to try to reduce your stress through both considering escape from the situation, and some of the self-care ideas we talked about above.
Thanks for writing and know that your friends at DomesticShelters.org are here for you. Feel free to update us on what you decide to do.
Ask Amanda is meant to offer helpful resources and information about domestic violence. If in crisis, please reach out to your nearest domestic violence shelter for the guidance of a trained advocate.
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