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.