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After surviving and escaping domestic abuse, you may discover that your ex is harming your children to get back at you. This may include trying to turn them against you, in a form of “domestic abuse by proxy.” Sometimes abusers train children to reject, avoid, and behave aggressively toward the survivor. This coercive control of children is an under-acknowledged form of child abuse. Coercive control is a pattern of isolation, manipulation, intimidation, gaslighting and actions to control another person. The abuser may also use some combination of verbal, sexual and physical abuse.
Although these behaviors from your child may break your heart, try to remember that they are not “personal.” Children are often following an abuser’s direct or indirect orders. The abuser is working hard to undermine and diminish your role as the protective parent.
Children caught in this bind can seem “difficult.” You may be tempted to punish them or cut them off because of how they treat you. Healing begins when you can regulate your own behavior and move from reactive to responsive, creating a feeling of safety for your child. Take a breath before you respond in anger or defensiveness.
While the blame lies entirely with the abuser, most likely it will be up to you to support the children and repair your relationship with them. This is difficult because survivors are already traumatized by their own experiences.
10 Tips For Parents To Manage Domestic Violence By Proxy
1. Lend Calm
Protective parents must act from a place of calm, and “lend” their children calm. Survivors are often dysregulated due to their own trauma, bouncing from one strong feeling to another. Engaging in trauma-sensitive therapy will help you be your best self with your children. The more you practice acting calm, the more natural it will become. Therapy and self-care routines (like exercise and meditation) can help you learn to regulate their emotions more readily. Model for your child the ability to be calm even when times are tough.
2. Be Present.
Protective parents need to be at the ready when their children are ready. Be intentionally present when your child may need you or reaches out in some way. Being present, your child will more readily see you as available and begin to share more feelings and experiences.
3. Talk Less and Listen More.
Abusers often harass and torment their victims, requiring elaborate explanations of everyday events. (“Where were you?” “Who did you speak with?”). Protective parents need to refrain from overexplaining with their children. Instead, they can listen to their children’s concerns.
4. Avoid Circular Arguments and Defensiveness.
Just as you learned to disengage from the abuser, you also need to avoid reacting defensively with your child. If your child presents a baseless accusation, avoid going around and around in a “circular” argument. For example, six-year-old Amanda’s father had told her that her mother did not love her. He lied that he could not reach her on several nights during their planned calls when Amanda was staying with him. Instead of defending herself and blaming the dad, Meagan asked Amanda how she could tell if someone loves her. They discussed the signs of love—care, dedication, meals, hugs, etc. They talked about ways they could feel connected even if they weren’t together. They sang a song and decided that Amanda could sing this song to herself in her head any time she wanted to feel close to her mother, especially with her father.
5. Validate and Empathize with Your Child's Perspective.
Remember, the coercive controller doesn’t have the ability to empathize with others, but you do. This is your superpower! Validate your children’s experiences using words often found in therapeutic environments.
- “I’m sorry that happened today.”
- “That sounds frustrating.”
- “ I wish that didn’t happen.”
- “I bet it was upsetting.”
It may not seem like your children are always listening, but they really are. You’re modeling this validation and empathy for them to see in action.
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6. Physically Lower Yourself.
When a person in a position of power, such as a parent or a teacher, places themselves physically below a distraught child (in a calm manner), that the situation becomes calmer. You can sit on a chair or the floor—anything to avoid towering over your child.
7. Authoritative Parenting.
Abusers often interact with their children in a demanding and threatening way, which is referred to as Authoritarian Parenting. Sometimes they will punctuate their control with inappropriate privileges or gifts. On the other hand, Authoritative Parenting is nurturing and responsive while also providing clear and consistent limits. Protective parents create opportunities to discuss some issues and reach compromises. Authoritative parenting shows children that the desired outcome is everyone’s well-being, not control.
8. Face the Ways You Trigger Your Child.
What do you do and say that trigger and dysregulate your child—even when you don’t mean to? A traumatized child may feel threatened by questions or comments coming from a protective parent, especially if the abuser has bad-mouthed them in front of the child. What do you do or say that triggers your child? How can you handle these situations differently?
9. Determine The Ways That Your Child Triggers You.
What does your child do or say that triggers you? Does your child act in ways that remind you of
your abusive ex? Remember, your child is being weaponized. Your child may be experiencing pressure to say and do things that are designed to upset you. Write down the triggers and practice new responses. Get help from a therapist or support group to think through some possible responses so you will know you have choices the next time you face a similar situation.
10. Create positive moments and memories.
Your abusive ex is trying to fracture your relationship. Squeeze in as much positivity as possible. Consistently create small fun moments. Your positive times together are like bubble wrap around the child. These special memories do not need to cost money and the effort pays off in a bond that will last a lifetime.
Here are some easy, fun activities to try:
- Go to the park
- Invite a friend or relative over for a tea party
- Take your child to the library
- Share hot chocolate
- Walk the neighbor’s dog
- Cook together
- Go for walks
- Dance to an online video
- Sing together
- Play cards or a board game
- Read a book at bedtime
All these tips require acknowledging your child as a victim of control and abuse. Exposure to cruelty damages children’s developing brains, even when most of the harm seems to be directed at their other parent. Most children need specific therapeutic support, but often the abuser will deny them access to therapy, or sabotage that therapy. Protective parents need to provide this support and “spoil” their children in healthy ways.
Learn how children of domestic violence find hope through an innovative summer camp in “Summer of Hope for 1,500 Kids.”
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