Q: I got myself and my kids away from my abuser after two years. We’re all starting to heal, but it feels hard to reach my kids now—they seem distant. They spend all their time in their rooms. They snap at me more easily. I get it, this is trauma, and I feel so responsible. How can I be there for them? I just want us to be a close family again.
A: Separating from an abuser is the first and arguably the most essential step in leaving domestic violence in your past. But it’s definitely not the last step. Healing can be a long process, so allow yourself and your family as long as it takes to navigate this part. Not only are you trying to adjust to life after abuse, you’re also helping to lead your children to a better place as well. I can imagine it is exhausting.
The abuse is not your fault. Feelings of shame and self-blame are normal during and after abuse, but ultimately, they’re not going to do you any good. The fact that you got out and got your children to safety is the most important thing, and you did it. (You may want to pick up one of our Book Club suggestions, How to Be Nice to Yourself.)
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I spoke with Behavioral Specialist Alphonso Nathan, LPC, a family-based therapist out of Pennsylvania and asked him for some ideas on how a parent can connect with their child after trauma. His first recommendation was to find a family therapist, if you’re able.
“I’m always going to push therapy. It allows for a safe space to process [trauma] with someone outside the family dynamic.” Counseling, he says, is important for both yourself and your children.
“Hurt people hurt people, so if you’re not working on your own traumas, we have more of an opportunity to pass these things down as a generational curse. Because that’s what we know,” says Nathan. “We need to have another individual to present a different lens.”
While I don’t know the ages of your children, therapy can be started as soon as kids can talk. The sooner the better, says research. Lessening the impact of adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, can prevent serious conditions later in life, including heart disease, cancer and depression. Beyond therapy, things like exercise, yoga, meditation and breathing exercises can help kids cope with the after-effects of trauma. It will be important for your kids now and in the future to learn about ACEs, which can give them some control and sense of empowerment over the consequences of their father's abuse. You can read more about childhood domestic violence in this section of DomesticShelters.org.
You said your kids snap at you often—increased aggression is a symptom of trauma. They may not be sure how to verbalize their anger, so they’re transferring it to you, a person they probably consider safe, and someone they know won’t hurt them back. But Nathan says that these verbal outbursts have the possibility of progressing to more physical eruptions, a type of mirroring of what they may have witnessed from the abuser. Learning healthier coping strategies is vital to keeping you safe and the kids out of trouble outside the home. If they’re little enough to read picture books, I’d recommend Anger Is OK, Violence Is Not as a good one to pick up in addition to seeing a mental health professional.
Make sure the licensed therapist you seek out has experience with trauma, specifically domestic violence and childhood trauma. And if the therapist doesn’t feel like a fit, don’t give up; try another.
“We’re trying to push therapy from being a taboo thing to talk about to something everybody can feel comfortable reaching out to,” he says.
Other ways to connect with your kids can start at home. Here are a few ideas:
- Find a space they feel safe and start a dialogue. This could be at bedtime, around the dinner table or on a one-on-one outing with you and a child to their favorite place. Ask them open-ended questions like, “What’s on your mind?”, “What are you struggling with right now?” or “What’s good in your life today?” You can even make it into a game—I have a set of Bright Littles Convo Cards on the dining room table that my kids like to pull questions from at dinnertime. They cover myriad topics from diversity to the environment that can just get the conversation going. Even if it’s not about what happened in the past, any conversation will add connection to your relationship.
- Practice empathy. When talking to your child about past traumas, they may say something that triggers a strong feeling in you such as guilt or anger. You may want to correct a memory they have or feel the need to minimize what happened, thinking this could help them. Experts say resist. Listen, affirm and offer support instead of advice. This will likely make them feel safe and understood. For more on listening with empathy, read our article, “Listening Hard: Why Empathy Can Be Your Best Asset.”
- Start a joint journal. A friend of mine says she and her daughter write letters back and forth to each other in a shared journal, which helps her daughter open up to her more easily about difficult topics. It also allows you to provide some guidance and support that your child can hold on to for years to come.
- Join in. What are they interested in? Connect with your child by joining in on an activity they’re into, be it music, a sport, a TV show, a book or something else. It doesn’t hurt to do a little research ahead of time, aka, “I heard there’s a new season of this show coming out on Friday—want to watch it together?”
- Hugs. Even if they seem distant, kids still need hugs. If they endured physical abuse by your ex-partner, just make sure the hug isn’t triggering—ask them if it’s OK to give them a hug. If they are eager for physical affection, incorporate more snuggles during movie time or storytime. Learn more about the health benefits of hugging here.
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For more ideas, read, “18 Ways to Support Children Exposed to Domestic Violence.” You may also want to look into connecting with other adult survivors through a support group, either in person or online. Finding other people, and moms, who can empathize with what you’re going through may help with your own healing.
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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