Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Focusing on Our Children

by Tanya T. Warrington

Children need help recovering from an abusive home. The issues of abuse are mind-bending and soul-numbing for adults—let alone children. Regardless of whether the children have been directly abused by one parent, or whether they witnessed one parent abuse another, their thinking about the world and themselves has changed. 

It is easy to assume that young children do not know about the abuse, but children know more about what is going on in a home than parents tend to think. When I left my abusive spouse I was amazed to learn when my seven year old daughter confessed hiding behind the couch listening to her father’s threats and wondering if she should call 9-1-1. It was a burden too big for a child’s small shoulders but it was her reality.

I, like most abuse survivors, thought that it imperative to remain married “for the children’s sake.” Divorce is traumatizing to kids and I wanted them spared from the ordeal. But while I hung on with all my strength to my unhealthy marriage my children were witnessing abuse and suffering direct abuse as well. Divorce is not more traumatizing than abuse.  Divorce is the beginning of hope for children who are suffering from abuse. It signals loud and clear that the abuse wasn't okay and that they will be protected from it. Divorce is challenging but it offers a chance for healing to begin in their lives. Ending the daily trauma of abuse allows them to process the abuse in a safe environment. It gives children the opportunity to experience a healthier way of life while they are still developing intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.

It is easy to provide an abuse-free home? No. It takes hard work. Abuse leaves its scars on how we think and behave. Abuse trauma is a cruel master that doesn’t let go of our emotions and thoughts without a fight. But it can be done. Healing from abuse takes commitment and a willingness to try new ways. Counseling for both the parent and the children helps the new family unit see, at a faster rate, what former family dynamics need to be changed. Play therapists, art therapists, and trained EMDR therapists can be especially helpful to children who are recovering from abuse. Do not assume that therapy is out of the question due to lack of money. Many churches, federal agencies, and individual counselors offer reduced price counseling for low income families.

There are other community resources that can assist families as well. In addition to individual counseling, my children and I fondly remember a parenting class offered by Lutheran Family Services. While I received instruction and could talk with other parents about my parenting challenges, my children played games and created art projects that were designed to raise their self-esteem and to teach positive family communication. Through the local domestic violence organization, my children had more fun play and craft time while I attended education classes and support group time. If you make healing from abuse a family priority, you will find organizations ready to help you and your children.

General advice for divorcing parents instructs divorcing parents to avoid putting children in the middle by keeping all comments about the other parent positive and showing a united parenting front. Very wise counsel. But, from experience, I also urge parents not to lie or cover up abuse experiences in an attempt to keep everything positive. A child can handle truthful answers stated in simple, direct ways better than they can handle more lies and denial.  It is enough, indeed, it is healing for the parent to keep her or his responses focused on the child’s needs. The child needs to know that they are finally safe and that the parent who removed them from abuse is dependable and trustworthy. 

I’ve found that keeping my tone of voice calm and empathetic helps the child to accept difficult truths.  The child will lead the process if you allow him or her. Let the child be the initiator of conversations about the other parent and then respond truthfully and graciously. For example, when the child wonders why his other parent was abusive, you can say, “I don’t know why. Something inside of him is broken.  No matter what we ever said or did, we could never fix him.” Then wait quietly to see what the child wants to say or ask next. If the child is pensive, you can gently ask something like, “Did it ever seem to you like if we could just be nicer or quieter that he wouldn’t have raged at us?” 

The goal is to help the child verbalize how they are looking at things and help reassure them. Children from non-abusive homes fear that divorce is somehow their fault. It is the same, but I believe even worse, for children who heard the other parent accusing them or their other parent of being the sole cause of his/her problems. You can’t change the past, but you can help your child to understand the past and free them to live a happier life in the present and in the future. You will navigate your way through many short, but very important, conversations, if you focus on responding to the child’s fears and other emotions (not on how you feel when they talk about the other parent).

The younger the child is at the time of the divorce, the more you will see him or her playing abuse scenarios. Let them play, as long as she/he is not injuring themselves or another. Play is a major processing tool. Understand that all play is not a precise re-creation of abuse. The emotions are real, the rest may mostly be imagination recreating and releasing painful emotions such as helplessness, anger, fear, sorrow, etc. And of course, some play is nothing more than play.

Being single and recovering from abuse is a huge load all by itself without adding any of the stress of helping children to recover too. I know. I’ve been there. When you feel overwhelmed, try focusing on the future rewards. Making healing a top priority for you and your children will change the futures of your children, grandchildren, and great grand children. Seek help. Don’t try to do it all alone. Build the life you’ve dreamed of—a life where family members respect one another, where problems are solved, and where both children and adults can enjoy life. The days of tip-toeing around an abusive person are ending for you and your children. Create fun family memories. Savor the preciousness of each of your children. Pursue healing. You and your children will be so glad that you did.


  1. Thanks for sharing that article, Annie. I may as well post this short article I wrote about one more issue in regards to focusing on our children. Society’s moral standards are evolving to recognize the horror and damage caused by child rape and imposes stricter punishments on perpetrators. It seems to me that people are forgetting that the children that are molested by these criminals don't just get over it. It is something that they have to live with their entire life.

    Jessica Langford was viciously raped then strangled to death by a man who would have done the world a favor if his mother would have aborted him at birth. I have a zero tolerance when it comes to child molestation, vicious rape and murder. I would consider death by slow torture so that the perpetrator of these most heinous crimes suffers greatly before he or she dies. If you have ever had a pedophile touch your lives then you don’t know the horrible stain it leaves on everyone's life, not just the child but the entire family. Many Child Molesters come from broken homes and Foster Care that the judicial system usually has to step in and deal with.

    Unforetunately, I feel that there are not enough resources to manage this runaway train. Children should always come first. I feel that Florida isn’t doing enough for the prevention, education, intervention, and treatment for them. These kids are being treated like throwaway trash bags! For God’s sake enough is enough. ... See More

    Massive tax cuts, means that judges and family advocates and counselors will have less or no funding. This means the children involved in broken homes will have a higher chance of going on to commit State/Federal level felonies, including Sex Crimes.

    Good law-enforcement coverage, along with enforcing the law effectively and thorough investigation of suspected Pedophiles is all that can work on the criminal side of things. Fixing broken families and having better support for children from broken homes, and better law-enforcement for abusive parents is what it will take to help prevent the creation of future Child Predators and Sex Offenders.

    One note about rape (including child molestation) is not truly about sex, but is about power. The power to do something violating to another person, in this case involving, sexual organs, and then getting away with it, making the victim fearful and feeling unimportant, violated, worthless and scared.

    We as adults have an obligation to protect the weakest in our society children, senior citizens, the handicapped.

    Thank you for your time.

  2. Harry, thank you for your comments. We do have an obligation to protect the weakest in our society. They cannot protect themselves adequately.

    I am thankful for all those who have spent their working life trying to help the victims either escape abuse or recover from abuse.


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