After leaving abuse, survivors might find themselves in the role of single parent for the first time. While plenty of advice can be found for navigating this new world, it’s usually given under the pretense that you also aren’t simultaneously dealing with trauma, or will advise you to just “suck it up” and get along with your ex.
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For survivors, this may not be an option. You’re most likely trying to figure out how to survive—both emotionally and financially, and sometimes in the literal sense of the word.
Add to this the fact that kids are naturally self-centered. They may not have the wherewithal to realize you’ve all just survived something horrendous, and that concern may be pushed to the bottom of the priority list when they want to watch cartoons at all hours of the day (the young ones) or vent to you about BFF drama (the older ones).
You could feel like a powder keg ready to explode at any moment. How do you deal with the adult-life stressors and also the kid-life ones simultaneously? Will yelling fix things?
The Kids are Watching
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“When it seems like too much, and you feel like you’re the only one in the world going through this, you can start to lose it because you feel picked on by the world,” says parenting expert and writer Varda Epstein. But what we need to remember, she says, is that our kids are watching us to see how we deal with adversity.
For the record, yelling has been shown as an ineffective way to reach kids, not surprisingly. Research shows yelling at kids can increase their aggression and make them feel insecure. But stop before you take that as a guilt trip—most of us parents have raised our voices more than a few times, and it doesn’t make you a bad parent.
There are other ways to keep your cool during stressful times. Epstein, who has raised 12 children and is now a grandmother to the same number, says she made it a habit to go and brush her teeth and wash her face whenever she felt like she might lose it. (We’re suspecting she’s never had a cavity in her life.)
“I feel cooled off and when you feel better you can think better,” she says.
Feeling like the world is imploding and all your kids care about is who gets to use the blue cereal bowl because the red one is dumb? Before you blow your top—which would be perfectly understandable but maybe not the most productive long-term—consider one of these alternatives for dialing back the stress:
- Take Five Deep Breaths. In through the nose, out through the mouth. My daughter’s preschool teaches them to smell the flower and blow out the candle when frustrated. Epstein says it’s “very clarifying” and also buys you some time before reacting in anger.
- Step Away. It’s OK to not address a stressor or conflict the moment it arises. You may do better by exiting the room for a moment, trying the first suggestion, and then heading back in with a calm demeanor.
- Vent. Find a support person and vent your frustrations. For a survivor, this may be more of a challenge than for others. You may be estranged from friends and family after being isolated by an abuser. Consider calling a domestic violence advocate (find one near you here)—they are always willing to listen even if you’re safe and just need to vent about life post-abuse. You can also find emotional support at the National Parent Helpline, 855-4APARENT. You may also want to read, “When Your Support System Isn’t Clear.”
- Focus on the Good. Life may not be easy right now and to top it off, your kids may be acting differently because of all the changes (this is normal, by the way). But if you can focus on the positives, you might be able to lessen some of your stress. What went well today? Is your child trying to make the right choices? Are you? Try cutting yourself and your kids a little slack during the healing process post-abuse.
- Don’t Worry About the Big Picture. The future can seem overwhelming—an upcoming court date to talk custody, uncertainty about your job or home, repairing relationships with friends you’ve grown apart from. Let that go for now, says Epstein. “Don’t look at the big picture, but rather find one thing you can do to move in a positive direction.” Maybe that’s as simple as coming together for a family meal and talking about your day. Or playing a board game. Take one step at a time.
Your kids likely heard and saw things while living with an abuser that weren’t positive. You can start to undo some of that damage with positive reinforcement personalized to them. Studies show that praising a child’s effort can go a long way toward building self-esteem (see video).
Also, check out parenting expert and author Amy McCready’s list of 27 Encouraging Words and Phrases. Among them:
- Thank you for your help!
- Look at your improvement!
- Your hard work paid off.
- That’s a tough one, but you’ll figure it out.
- I can tell you really care.
Thinking about spanking when your kids don’t listen? You might want to reconsider. Much like yelling, studies show spanking can lead to an increase in aggression later in life. Read more in “The Great Spanking Debate.”
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