• Denisa Millette

Parenting in the Face of an Abusive Home Situation

There is no doubt that exposure to domestic violence is detrimental to children’s emotional well-being, causing or significantly contributing to development of symptoms of anxiety, PTSD, behavioral problems, anger/aggression, and many other emotional issues. If you would like to learn more about this topic, please read my research-based article, Domestic Violence and Children.

Many times in my clinical practice, I have talked to parents whose children have significant anger issues, misbehave in school, or withdraw from others. Their parents or caretakers request a psychological evaluation in hopes to discover what causes these issues and how to treat them. There have been numerous times when after interviewing both the child and the parent, I found that the anger or sadness the child is exhibiting, actually stems from underlying anxiety. Anxiety in children as well as in adults can be easily disguised as anger, sadness, or inappropriate behavior. If you are a parent or a caregiver in a current or previous situation of domestic violence or even in an emotionally or verbally abusive situation, it may be extremely challenging for you to parent your child for several reasons:

1. You are emotionally unstable, often dealing with your own anxiety and PTSD. Typically, it is difficult for you to sleep, so you are sleep deprived and irritable most of the time. You are also most likely to feel unsafe and overly sensitive to your environment. You have difficulty taking care of your own basic needs and either isolate yourself from others or have significant difficulty functioning in any social setting. It is difficult to overcome depression and feelings of hopelessness. You feel trapped.

2. You are afraid to reach out for help for fear that you may lose your child. This fear is understandable. Children are removed from the home due to exposure to domestic violence because the impact of such exposure is very harmful to their overall well-being. However, the exposure to emotional and verbal abuse can have similar consequences.

3. Your child may now exhibit a variety of emotional and behavioral issues that can be overwhelming to you. I often hear parents reporting their children being defiant and verbally or even physically abusive toward them as well. It becomes easier to avoid the child or appease the child just to avoid conflict.

4. Lack of support. Whether you are a mom or a dad in an abusive situation, you are most likely to lack support of friends, family, or community. You feel alone. Either you don’t want to share your struggles to avoid becoming a burden for others or you feel ignored, judged, and misunderstood. You may even think and believe (many times for a good reason) that the justice system is unfair and not just at all. You are also most likely facing lack of access to appropriate resources and may deal with financial issues and insecurity. Desperation and helplessness often set in.

There are many other reasons why it may be challenging to parent your child in your situation. The above stated reasons are the ones that I have commonly came across working with children and adults from abusive environments. But, despite all of the above difficulties, you can still be the best parent you can be. If you are currently being physically, emotionally, or verbally abused, it is imperative that you remove yourself and your child from this situation as soon as possible. Much has been written on this topic and it is not the focus of this article, so I will not elaborate on how to leave; however, it has to be said. Until you leave the abusive situation, you will not be able to start your healing journey and feel empowered as a parent and caregiver.

Assuming that you are no longer being abused and your child is no longer exposed to your abuse, the following tips are very likely to help you get back in control as a parent.  However, even if you are still dealing with an abuser, you can effectively use any of these strategies as well:

1. Seek help from an experienced therapist.

I have heard so many times from my clients that they have tried therapy and it was just not working for them. If that is your experience, I would encourage you to try again. Developing a trusting relationship with your therapist is a crucial component to successful treatment. However, this takes time and you need to give your therapist a chance. There are many kinds of therapeutic approaches that are very effective and work well for some, but not for others. The length and intensity of treatment depends on severity of your issues. The more time that passes between your trauma and therapeutic intervention, the more complex symptoms develop and take longer to treat. However, therapy does not have to always last a long time. Sometimes, you may need a longer period of time to develop your relationship with your therapist and process your thoughts and feelings regarding your trauma. Other times, you may just need to learn certain coping skills to manage your depression or anxiety. Once you have these important tools, you can start successfully using them in all sorts of situations, including those involving your child. You can also address your parenting issues with your therapist to receive some additional guidance. Taking this step and working with an experienced and skillful therapist will allow you to move to the next step much faster.

2. Self-care.

You have been through a life-changing, traumatic experience. You are likely to be broken and shaken on many levels. Self-compassion is much needed. It’s time to take care of you. It is very difficult to make any progress in the area of self-care if you are deeply depressed, angry, and anxious. That is why you need to learn coping skills to manage your emotions with a therapist first or at least alongside these efforts. Your therapist should encourage you to find time for self-care. In addition, by taking care of yourself, you are setting up a positive example for your child to imitate. So what exactly does self-care involve?

Healthy nutrition – what you eat is in a direct proportion to how you feel. Healthy, nutritious diet is not just great for your physical health, but also for your brain. Processed, unhealthy food will cause a brain fog, low energy, inability to concentrate and will contribute to feelings of depression.

Sleep – the amount and quality of your sleep is crucial to keep your anxiety in bay. Most adults need about 7 hours of sleep to feel rested. Sleep deprived brain is your biggest enemy. To read more about sleep issues and PTSD, please read Improving Your Sleep and Reducing PTSD Related Sleep Disturbances.

Exercise – Find something non-competitive that allows you to move your body without worries about how well you are performing. Walking or jogging outside, especially in sunshine is one of my favorite suggestions to cast off depression. Remember, the best antidote for depression is activity. Exercise will boost your mood, lower your anxiety, and help you sleep better.

Learn to relax – indulge in whatever gives you some sense of peace, whether it is a hot bubble bath or a shower, yoga, listening to music, reading a funny novel, watching a comedy, journaling or drawing. Make this relaxation an important part of every day, even if it is just a few minutes.

Hygiene – this may be obvious to some, but sometimes, you can be so depressed and unmotivated, you can’t get out of bed, let alone brush your hair, put on clothes, or do your make up. However, caring about the way you look is crucial as it has a direct impact on your self-esteem, which then in turn affects the way you parent and interact with your child.

Home/Shelter – wherever you are, no matter what your living conditions are, you can always make your environment pleasant to be in for you and your child. Your home should be relaxing and comfortable and free of anything that can trigger flashbacks, anxiety, or PTSD symptoms.

3. Seek therapy for your child.

If your child displays significant emotional and/or behavioral problems, it would be beneficial for them to receive a psychological or a trauma evaluation. An experienced evaluator will conduct an in-depth interview with you and your child and administer a suitable testing battery. The evaluator will then diagnose your child and make conclusions and recommendations based on the results of the interviews and testing. Such evaluation is often very helpful as it allows the therapist to see specific issues and problems and assess which therapeutic approach may be the most helpful.

Older children and adolescent often oppose therapy, but you should still give it a try. Many times, appropriate explanation may be enough to convince your child to attend. A skillful, experienced therapist should find the most effective way to approach your child and build trust. This process takes time, so patience is very important. I encourage you to communicate with your therapist often.

It is true that the information your child shares during therapy (unlike during an evaluation) is confidential, unless the child has any suicidal or homicidal tendencies. However, you as a parent have a right to understand the main objectives of the treatments as well as your child’s progress in it. You and your child’s therapist need to work together, thus your understanding of the therapeutic approach and prognosis is crucial.

4. Self-education and support.

Seek information about parenting and about yours and your child’s psychological issues through reading articles and books, talking to your therapists, and attending workshops. Share what you learn with others and gain insights from those who are experiencing similar issues.

5. Be patient with your child.

Your child is a victim as well. Your positive attitude can go a long way. When you are rested, calm, and focused, you are more likely to be able to connect with your child, helping her to be calm and in control as well. When feeling upset or angry with your child, step back and reassess the situation before taking any actions. Believe that you and your child can heal, move on, and have a very happy and successful life.

Implementing the above strategies is a good start to empowered parenting. Please feel free to post comments or questions.

If you found this article helpful, please feel free to explore the website for many other articles related to these issues. 

#abuse #domesticviolence #parenting

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