Tag Archives: children and domestic violence

When Your Abuser Turns the Children Against You

Lately our ministry has seen more than its fair share of mothers* struggling to co-parent with abusive spouses and partners. Not only do they worry about sending their children off to spend unsupervised time with spiteful exes, many even find their children turning against them and siding with their abusers! It defies all logic that the kids would choose to side with fathers who have caused such harm to their mothers, but it happens far too often. By its very nature, abuse is anything but logical. I often tell people that living in an abusive or emotionally destructive relationship is very much like being in a cult, because the way abusers can distort their victims’ thinking, and children are most susceptible to this sort of brainwashing.

The US Department of Justice actually touches on this dynamic in its definition of emotional abuse. “Undermining an individual’s sense of self-worth… is abusive. This may include, but is not limited to constant criticism, diminishing one’s abilities, name-calling, or damaging one’s relationship with his or her children.” Scripture is very clear on the power of words. They can be as harmful as drawn swords (Ps. 55:21, Pr. 12:18), and they can even teach children to attack their greatest human ally. So what’s a mom to do when her abuser turns her kids’ hearts away from her?

There are no easy answers to that question, but I think there are some things that can help your children see more clearly. Number one is to learn not to react to your abuser! Do not let him push your buttons and make you angry! When you “lose it” in front of your children, he will use it to justify his criticism of you. One of our clients told me that her husband would berate her mercilessly, and when she finally blew up he had the oldest daughter standing nearby to record it on her cell phone. He then used those recordings to prove to their pastors what an “ungodly” mom she was. When she learned to stop reacting to him, it made him angry and the children got a much clearer picture of who the real troublemaker was. I know how difficult it is to listen to unfair accusations, and how hard it is not to want to defend yourself, but you have to remember that it will only make things worse. Learn the power of disengaging, and realize it’s your spouse who has the problem, not you. You have nothing to prove.

The second thing you can do is to show consistent love to your children. Remember that love does what is best for them, which means you set boundaries– even when your ex may be using the “no boundaries” approach to parenting as a means of winning their support. If they refuse to obey you, let them know your concern for their welfare and the reason for your decisions, but don’t let anger or fear drive your parenting. It’s not good to let your frustration drive you overreact. When I was coming out of abuse, I found myself acting like a dictator, which did far more harm than good. In the long run, I had to learn to let natural consequences run their course, because I found that my attempts at hyper control only pushed my children further away. Sometimes survivors of abuse will face periods of estrangement from their children, but showing consistent love and concern (without trying to force them back into relationship) will usually win them back over time.

There are several other things you can do to help your children see how their thinking has been skewed by abuse, but there’s not enough room in a single blogpost to list them all. I would commend to you Lundy Bancroft’s book Helping Your Children Heal the Wounds of Witnessing Abuse. Bancroft has produced an abundance of helpful work on parenting and abuse, but to my knowledge he is not a Believer so I will leave you with one more piece of advice from a Christian perspective. Surrender your children to God! Remember that He loves than more than you do, and He can redeem their stories even as He redeems yours. One of the best things you can do is continue to cultivate your relationship with Him, so that you can model His unchanging character to your kids. I’ll end with a story of a mom who did just that.

My friend “Beth” was a full-time, stay-at-home mom of 5 children. She didn’t have the resources to pay for an attorney and when she went to family court for their custody hearing, the judge granted full custody to her ex. Beth was devastated, and as she told the story in our support group there was a collective gasp. But then she said, “I lost custody, but that was the best thing that could have happened!” We all stared at her in disbelief as she explained that in the year she lost her children she learned to cling to God in a way she never had. She said that she spent that year healing in His loving arms, and began to fully trust Him for her children’s future. At the end of a year, her ex showed up at the house and returned all five children. He had only taken them to hurt her, but as she gained strength and learned not to react, he found that his “victory” was harder on him than her.

Beth says that year made her a better parent, because in losing everything she learned that Jesus was enough. Her relationship with God deepened as never before, which she says made her a much better parent. Today Beth’s children seem to be thriving, but I think the outcome could have been much different if she had allowed her circumstances to rule her rather than her faith. If you are reading this and struggling with an abusive spouse or ex who has influenced your children to turn against you, be encouraged. This is not the end of the story. God is more powerful than any man, and He wants to redeem your children’s lives. Give Him the reins and trust His loving heart.

 

* We’ve actually seen a father in the same situation recently, but over 90% of our ministry’s clients are women, so my post will use descriptors that reflect our demographic.

How Can I Ever Forgive Myself?

“How can I ever forgive myself?” It’s a question I’ve heard many times in my years of counseling. In fact, I get it! I know very well how it is to be plagued with guilt and remorse over a bad decision. When I finally broke free from a 23 year abusive relationship, I lived with regret on a daily basis. I couldn’t believe I had been stupid enough to believe the lies  that had kept me bound up for so long, and couldn’t believe how I had foolishly disregarded the harmful impact on my children. As much as I tried to tell myself that I did the best I could at the time, I was overwhelmed with remorse. The fact that I was still living with the consequences of my failures seemed to make it even harder to let myself off the hook.

As with the many other struggles I faced as a survivor of abuse, I went to scripture to find the answer to overcoming the guilt and shame I carried. First of all, I found nothing there that spoke to a need to forgive myself. The Bible urges us to forgive one another, and to receive God’s forgiveness, but never once does it tell us to forgive ourselves. Rather, it reminds us that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). It also lets us know that if we confess our sin He is faithful to forgive and cleanse us (1 John 1:9). My study of scripture led me to the conclusion that rather than focusing on myself, I needed to focus on His finished work on the cross. I needed to accept what He had done for me– anything less would be the equivalent of saying His work on the cross was not effective for my sin. It was also choosing to walk in condemnation even though He had set me free from it.

Although I finally realized I had no right to continue to condemn myself, I was still overwhelmed with sorrow about the consequences of my choices earlier in life. For many years after I left the abuse, I continued to watch my children struggle as a result of their tumultuous upbringing– and my failures as a parent. Over time, I finally learned to establish boundaries with them, but it seemed to be too little too late. In the long run, all I could do was surrender them to His loving hands. All my fear-motivated attempts to control them seemed to push them further away. One day as I was crying out to God about it, I sensed in my spirit that He was not done with them yet, and that He was even sovereign over my mistakes and failures. I realized that just as He was using my pain and suffering for His good purposes, He could do the same with my kids. It took many years to see things turn around, but as I surrendered them to His loving hands He worked in amazing ways.

If you find yourself overwhelmed with the weight of guilt from your past, there are two truths that will set you free –if you apply them. First, you must choose to believe God’s proclamation that you have been set free from condemnation by Jesus’ finished work on the cross. He took the penalty for all your failures, and took the shame on Himself. If you have received Him, you are free from sin, guilt and condemnation. Telling yourself otherwise is to believe the lie that His sacrifice was not good enough. Second, you must trust God’s sovereignty. This means that He will somehow use the pain and sorrow you experienced for His good purposes (Rom. 8:28). Believing He is sovereign is worthless if you do not believe He is good, so if you doubt His goodness you must start by remedying that problem. Scripture is filled with proclamations of His lovingkindness, and suffering does not diminish His character!

He specializes in turning ashes into beauty (Is. 61:3). As you choose to embrace Him in your pain you will experience the reality of this truth. Full surrender to our good God will never disappoint, but holding on shame and self-condemnation will keep you in bondage. Freedom is a choice, and you will find it as you shift your focus from yourself (and your mistakes) to His abundantly sufficient grace.

Is My Relationship Abusive? Part 3

Part 3 in a Series. Today’s post will cover three of the 8 tactics abusers use as listed on the Power and Control Wheel. For more on the Wheel, see my previous post.

Coercion and Threats

At the top of the Power and Control Wheel we see that abusers use coercion and threats to maintain control. In the years I have worked with victims of domestic violence, nearly all of them have confirmed that these behaviors were used regularly in their homes. Some abusers threatened to leave their families and not provide for their basic needs, some threatened suicide in order to make sure they got their way, some threatened physical harm, and others just threatened to humiliate their wives somehow. In several cases, I’ve seen abusers go out of their way to make their wives look incompetent. After years of living with control and manipulation, my friend Jill became seriously depressed, and ended up taking anti-depressants. Her husband made sure he let the pastor know how concerned he was about his wife’s erratic behavior, her inability to parent properly, and her dependence on medication. Of course, the church had no idea of what really went on behind closed doors, and Jill knew better than try to tell them. At the same time, Jill’s husband made sure she knew that if she decided to leave the marriage, he would have no trouble having her declared incompetent and getting full custody of the children. For Jill this threat was far more powerful than bodily injury ever could have been. Her husband’s threats were highly effective in promoting his selfish interests.

Using the Children

Abusive people generally aim their threats directly at whatever their victims value most, so that means threats involving children are very common in these situations. In fact, many women stay in horrible situations far too long, because they know if they leave their spouses may harm the children. Such was the case with my friend Amy. She had endured occasional physical violence and relentless threats from the beginning of her marriage. Her husband kept a gun beside their bed, and let her know that if she ever tried to leave him he would use it on her. He even held it to her head on a few occasions. She knew she needed to leave, but was concerned about her children if she did, because he told her if she left he would “still have the children.” She wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but knew it wasn’t good. Finally, there came a day when she felt that if she didn’t get out, she would not live parent her children at all, so she mustered up the courage to take them and leave. Shortly after separation, Amy had to go to court to try and get legal custody of the kids. She told the judge her concerns about the children being with their father, but he granted regular, unsupervised visitation to her husband anyway. Amy wanted to believe that her husband wouldn’t make good on those vague threats, and that the court had made the right decision. However, in within a short amount of time, her 3-year-old son came home reporting being locked in a closet and giving descriptions of sexual abuse he and his sister had endured. Amy was finally able to stop the unsupervised visitation, but she learned that the threats against her children were not idle.

Unfortunately, Amy’s story is not an exception when it comes to domestic violence. In my own limited exposure, I have seen abusers intentionally use and misuse their children multiple times in order to punish their spouses. In other cases, it is not unusual for them to attempt to turn the children against their mothers. Basically abusers will do whatever they consider necessary to maintain control, regardless of the consequences to the children. I have seen women frozen in fear, because of these types of threats, but those I have known who decided to leave all tell me they made the right decision—even Amy. She believes things would have been far worse had she stayed. Living in fear of a man will never lead to the life God intends for you. Ask Him to help you devise a plan to leave, and be sure to utilize all the resources available to you. Your local domestic violence shelter can help you devise a safety plan, and connect you to legal resources to help you with custody issues.

Intimidation

Besides using their children to hurt their wives, abusers make regular use of intimidation techniques to instill fear and attain unfettered power in their families. Intimidation can range from a harsh look to extreme physical violence. Most abusive people have conditioned their victims to know when they are about to snap. As a result, a single angry glance can cause wives and children to completely freeze up or change their course of action. If a nasty look doesn’t get the desired result, or if the abuser is feeling particularly grumpy, he may resort to more physical tactics such as throwing and smashing things, destroying her property, or even abusing the household pets. When I was working at the shelter, one of the clients told me that her husband decapitated her dog in front of her and the children, and countless other victims told me that their family pets often received the brunt of the abuser’s wrath. One lady told me that her husband filled her car with poisonous snakes to make sure she didn’t go anywhere.

Intimidation is a highly effective tool for perpetrators of domestic violence, and it usually escalates in intensity if the abuser does not feel his demands are being met. Some of the behaviors often seen in the progression of violence include: blocking her exit from a room, screaming, raising a fist, denying access to prescription medicine, grabbing, jerking, shoving, spitting, pulling hair, and so on. If these methods do not work, then punching, kicking and other methods of inflicting more serious physical harm are likely to follow. An interesting thing to note here is that, even when hitting occurs, many abusers, in an effort to keep the abuse hidden, maintain enough control over themselves to make sure they hurt their victims in way that doesn’t leave obvious bruises.