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Abuse is multifaceted. An abuser will use whatever tactics he or she can to hurt you physically, emotionally, psychologically, sexually. Sometimes what hurts the most is a form of emotional and psychological abuse: when an abuser turns your own children against you.
Unfortunately, it is not an uncommon practice. And it’s not always easily recognizable. The practice can range from subtle messages to active brainwashing. Strategies include: belittling one parent or making derogatory comments about one parent’s race, sex, body type, etc.; telling a child he or she doesn’t have to listen to the other parent; forcing a child to reject one parent in favor of the other; and negative talk about one parent’s extended family.
Many times, children believe the abuser, or at least go along with what’s being said out of self-preservation.
“Some children will actually befriend the parent that’s causing the physical hurt in hopes that by being nice, maybe they won’t get as mad,” says Brian F. Martin, founder and CEO of the Childhood Domestic Violence Association. “I’ve heard of young people waking up early in the morning or staying up late to cook for their parents in hopes that by doing something nice, the violence won’t happen tonight.”
Helping Kids Understand Manipulation
When abusers manipulate children to create division, the most important thing to do is refrain from blaming or resenting the child. It is never the child’s fault. What may be even harder but just as important is to refrain from blaming or badmouthing the other parent to your child.
“This is a viciously confusing time for children,” Martin says. “No matter what, deep down they still love both parents. But loving the abuser doesn’t mean they agree with what they are doing. Don’t put children in the position where they have to choose or question whether their love is correct.”
What you should do is keep the lines of communication open. “Use the opportunity to explain what it is they’re experiencing,” Martin says. “For this, there isn’t really a script. Just try saying, I know what you’re hearing, and let’s have an honest conversation about that.”
Of course, not all children will understand what’s going on right away. “All I can say is don’t take it personally,” he says. “Be patient. Children will come to the truth in time.”
Need more help on how to talk to kids about violence at home? Read “Explaining Violence to Kids.”
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