Divorce professionals are fond of saying that children feel “caught in the middle.” But a lot of kids don’t feel that way at all. They see clearly where the abuse is coming from, and they recognize their dad or step-dad’s manipulations. They wish he would stop bullying Mom and stop bullying them. They wish he would stop trying to turn them against her. They get sick of how nothing is ever his responsibility and he blames Mom for everything. They get why Mom is afraid of him because they see his intimidating side once in a while themselves.
And they can feel that their mother really cares about them. Whereas with Dad, his shows of caring seem to end up being all about him.
Being a child, or a teen, or a young adult, who sees the abuser for what he is brings plenty of painful challenges. I want to bring to light a few of the emotions kids in this position go through.
Profound grief about the Dad they wish they’d had. They find themselves aching with the question, “Why? Why/ Why?” They long for a kind, responsible father — and one who can understand and respect how important their mother is to them
Fury. They feel enraged about the cruelty they were forced to be around. But they’re also afraid of their own rage, since Dad used anger as an excuse to hurt people. They have trouble grasping what healthy expression of anger might look like.
Guilt. Two aspects of their history seem to weigh particularly heavily upon them. First, they feel guilty that they couldn’t stop the abuser when he was harming Mom or harming their siblings. It’s very hard for them to accept how little they really could have done. Scenes from earlier years may play repeatedly on their memory screens.
Second, they feel guilty for pulling away from Dad. They feel like they’re abandoning him, especially since he plays up how unfair the world has been to him. Their heads may circle with thoughts: “I should be there for him. But I’ve tried endlessly to get him to be different toward me and he doesn’t listen at all. I like him for a while and then suddenly he makes me feel really bad. He needs me. But then he always puts his needs first, like I’m supposed to give everything up for him.” And on and on it goes around.
And there’s more. If they have younger siblings who still have to go see him, they may feel responsible for those kids. They may feel guilty for their own happiness at whatever times they achieve that. They feel guilty about times when they joined into being mean to Mom. It’s a huge weight to carry, and they don’t deserve any of it.
A turmoil of mixed emotions. Wanting to see Dad more vs. wanting to see him less. Hoping that he’ll change vs. trying to let go of that hope (just as their mother went through – or maybe still does). Feeling like life is worth the fight vs. wanting to give up on it all.
A delicious sense of liberation. Kids who reach an age where they can pull away from the abuser have times of feeling like they’ve been freed from a cage. I’ve had many young adults tell me how much better life has become since they escaped his toxicity. Seeing through him is painful but profoundly freeing. (And the research indicates that kids who see through the abuser are less likely to end up in abusive relationships themselves – which makes sense when you think about it.)
Growing closer to Mom and siblings. Abusers chronically cause tensions and distance in kids’ relationships with their moms and with each other. Backing off from him creates space for those relationships to heal. Grasping that he was 100% responsible for his actions – Mom wasn’t causing his behavior, and neither were the kids – allows family members to stop blaming each other and themselves. Long conversations can reveal ways that you were all set up to think badly of each other; the abuser was working behind the scenes to sow divisions through his lies and manipulations. Working through these issues can bring a delicious sense of rebirth.
Lundy’s new book is In Custody, a suspense novel about a young journalist who stumbles into the anti-mother bias and corruption in the family courts — and stumbles into danger.
Photo by kevin laminto on Unsplash (girls by railing)
Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash (boy in hoodie)
Photo by marieke koenders on Unsplash (kids in field)
So how do I as a mom help my kids through this? I believe my eldest is experiencing this.
From a daughter’s point of view, just talk to her. Allow her to be angry (even if it feels like she’s being angry at you — remember it’s not about you), allow her to storm off, cool down, and then try again. Understand that it will be uncomfortable for her to open up. If you haven’t had an open conversation about him, and how he is or makes you feel, please do it. Don’t tell her that she’s making a big deal out of nothing, or accidentally guilt-trip her when she does open up. Tell her that you understand. You could even suggest therapy, if that’s not something she’s already doing. (it’s helped me a lot) Basically, just talk to her.
I hope your daughter feels better! I know what she’s going through, and all I would like is for my mom to be honest with me — no bullshit, no defenses, no excuses for him. Tell me that we are on the same team. She’s pulled away a lot, whether she realizes or not, and it’s not the same anymore.
Wow this is amazing.
Currently going through hell with my ex via family courts here in the UK and trying to pick up the pieces of years of abuse and reassure my children they are loved and it isn’t their fault. Seeing the guilt because the youngest goes and has Contact but the oldest refuses but is being forced to go. Seeing the damage social services are doing by insisting the oldest must go see her father despite their own trauma and abuse at his hands.
It is so hard. As mothers we have to stay quiet as we are told to and told to say yes you must go see him as we aren’t allowed to say I know he has hurt you and what he did was wrong we are told we must deny their emotions and feelings and make them see him.
You dont stay quiet no one knows your experiences but you, SS work on the notion both parents are in it together and both as bad as each other, first off I would speak freely about him and let your children do so too, my ex is off his rocker for too long I pander under the hope he would see the light and get help, for years his paranoia, threats, blame and manipulation grew and I tried to rationalize it as illness and feel sorry for him rather then angry. I pushed that on the kid too that dad cant help it.
then i decided no, he doesn’t do it to his direct family, he manages to hold down a job so he clearly has control of his rage and accusations. my kid calls him that A**hole or the A**hole, thats his right, we never call him by his name, he has a very common name and its not good to taint it with memories of him, as we will always meet people with that name.
I pandered to the ex with the visits always in a public place, I would not let him see our child alone and he refused a mediator, they were awful every single one, more often then not he was antagonizing our child to the point of tears rather then me, probably because its more effective to walk off leaving me with a child screaming about killing themselves.
SS didn’t give a stuff until my child pipped up to a child psychologist and said I dont want to see dad anymore. you need to give kids the courage that its ok to say what they think and feel. that was years ago. we have not had to see the ex and my child has had counseling for years its only this year that they have started talking about dad to the councilors other then just vague words about being mean and frightening. my child was frightened for years that dad would somehow find out and attack if they told anyone.
You most certainly can validate your children’s feelings & emotions. It is acceptable to say, I understand how you feel & your feelings are justified however the courts say you must go therefore you must go. But never dismiss their feelings. I certainly never dismissed my children’s feelings, they needed that validation, it was essential in their healing. Good luck to you & your children.
Actually, the court even punishes mothers sometimes for validating their children’s feelings. Judges are starting to even give written orders to mothers that they are to tell the children that they agree that the child should go on the visits — as incredible as that may sound. Protective mothers are in a truly terrible position in the current court atmosphere.
Well then fine me, cuff me, or do whatever you need to but courts or no courts I WOULD NEVER NOR EVER sweep my children’s feeling under a rug. I owe/owed them at least that. The guilt I carried & STILL carry for staying longer than I should have. For allowing them to witness or be subjected to his addictions, explosive temper, his toxic behavior, manipulation, & abuse. They have a right to their feelings & have a right to validation. That being said, Jesus himself couldn’t keep me from validating them. I am sorry if I come off as arrogant or rude but I FEEL STRONGLY about the importance of validation & for a long time that was the only thing I could give them.
I totally support your feelings. And I think most mothers wouldn’t hesitate to face being cuffed or fined. But what they face if the court is mad at them is having their children taken away from them by the court and given to the abuser. And that makes the daily decisions about what they can and can’t say to their children extremely loaded and complicated.
Beautiful. Thank you
Spot on, as always! Thank you, Lundy.
It’s refreshing and hopeful that you are still addressing issues of domestic abuse and its ramifications. As a mother, I have been wondering how my child may have been impacted by the separation and by her father’s behaviour. Although she’s seeing a therapist, I could never guess or identify some of the feelings she might be having and/or why. Thank you for naming them and explaining them so assiduously. It’s truly helpful.
Dear Lundy, As a professional DV program developer, executive, trainer, writer and activist I love this and agree with it, AND I must say that ….”not always” are these things true! I raised four surviving children with a very violent, manipulative and hate-filled abuser, who was also the charming, wonderful son, brother, neighbor, friend, community member, politician and business owner/operator. I developed, ran and administered the business, managed and developed his political campaign, did all of the work for his participation in civic groups, and cared for the home, children and all else, all while volunteering for scouting, PTA and lots of other obligations. I also cared for my aging grandparents, and made many of his mother’s clothes, designed and helped build and painted his mother’s new home, and cared for and fed his brothers who lived with us while working for our company. (Yes, I was a fairly unique teen and young person, with lots of skills learned from growing up with a single mom, who was a victim of domestic violence, incest and deep poverty, coming out of the depression era with four siblings and a widowed mother.) After 16 years of marriage, (from my age of fifteen, in 1958, after he raped me when I was 14), I got one of the first “orders of protection” issued in my region in the early 1970s. There were no shelters, rape crisis centers or any form of advocacy for victims of male terrorism. I was demonized by the friends, family and colleagues of this man, as well as some of my own relatives, and he was held up as a wonderful person. The sheriff’s deputies took him around in their patrol cars rather than leave him in jail on the rare occasions when some judge held him accountable for a few days… I was left in poverty with my four children, avoiding his stalking and continuing abuse, until he died suddenly at age 39 of a heart attack in early 1980. Meantime I finished college, struggled through, and developed more career skills. After working in higher education, I was hired by a DV program I had helped to start. My years of activism, protests, and helping to start DV programs and a rape crisis hotline were not important to this program, owned by a church and a large board of middle-class liberals. I left that program after about two years to start, develop and lead a program in a bordering county and we became nationally known for some of our cutting -edge work. During all of this my children became adults, as they struggled with the effects of what their father had wrought, including raping my youngest daughter after the separation, when she was nine years old! After that too long narrative I wanted to share about one of my two sons who inexplicably became a pale imitation of his father, resumed his dead father’s demonization of me and said his sister was a liar regarding his father’s rape of her at age nine. He has caused me more heartache than I can describe and remains one of my worst issues. I will be 70 years old in February and feel as though my whole life is i some way a long description of what domestic violence is and becomes. I will always be grateful for your wonderful work and leadership on the topic of men’s terrorism and violence against women. Thanks so much for all you have written and all that you do to help address what we, battered women and survivors live with. Rose Garrity
It’s incredible and outrageous what you’ve been through, Rose. I’m not seeing where we disagree, though.
As a child with two narcissistic fathers.. /step and bio..this is spot on. I watched my mother be abused for years until she just couldn’t do it anymore 🙁
Felt guilty my whole life because I couldn’t save her or my siblings..
Sending love to all who’ve experienced some form of this abuse
It is literally as of you wrote this about my kids! Mine are 11, 11 & 6 and the youngest is most vulnerable to my ex, but hold so much guilt and hurt for the dad he wishes he had. Your articles and books offer so much as I feel very alone at times having an Ex who shows the world only one side of him. It keeps my mind in a good place and reassures me we (my kids and I) are all going to be OK in the end, and that I’m not alone or crazy!
Why don’t Judges/Family Courts in abuse cases require that both homes have video cams/given to them by the Family Court to record exactly what is going on with the abusive parent? Any Protective Moms would give up their “Right to Privacy” (or their right hands!) if it meant protecting their kids from the abusive father! Why don’t Moms (in certain cases/maybe not all…) ask Judges to over-ride the “Rights” of Abusive Fathers & say: “Both households will have cameras watching over/protecting the kids…” With technology today, wireless video cams could probably be tweaked to earmark a child’s scream or even physical contact/abuse. Why isn’t this “semi-solution” to protecting children & their moms possible?????
Brilliant! I love this solution!!!
Honestly, I don’t think this would have the intended effect. Abusers are brilliant manipulators. If they were being recorded in their homes, they would act like a perfect dad for the camera. They would take the abuse elsewhere… Then the child would continue to have the same gaslighting… never knowing what to expect and when. And that evidence would be used to continue keeping the child in his home.