What life is really like for women and their children after abuse
For many women one of the many challenges of leaving a relationship in which we are subjected to domestic abuse is the fear of what life may be like for our children if we leave.
Will the perpetrator subject our children to abuse when as mums we are no longer around to protect our children? Will our children be used as weapons to try and maintain control or to punish us for leaving? Or will we be taken to court and accused of being mentally unwell or of parental alienation and risk the perpetrators having more unsupervised contact or even worse they be awarded full custody.
When we have children, perpetrators often use them to continue to try exerting power and control over us knowing it is one of the only ways they have left and the impact of this is often devastating yet many people are unaware of this.
This is only one layer though, what about the impact of domestic abuse on our children, what about the manipulation, what they have witnessed and been subjected to and how does this affect them? How and where do our children start to try to understand and make sense of what has happened?
It almost feels impossible as adults at times to understand so it can be even harder for a child. Children may feel they were to blame and at fault, the perpetrator may have told them this that they were the reason they were angry or caused them to behave as they have or even that they were the reason the relationship ended. Children are then left with guilt and shame confused and unable to make sense of what they are feeling and what they have been told.
Children may have been Mum’s protector or became a peacekeeper trying to make everyone laugh to diffuse the situation. In the hope that the perpetrators' abuse wouldn’t escalate further, they may have tried to please the perpetrator or learnt to stay quiet, similarly to us as mums when being subjected to abuse. Children may try to please perpetrators by becoming high achievers, never misbehaving, and even becoming perfectionists through fear, but this too comes with a cost.
Wedges between siblings created by the perpetrator may have led to even more challenges and fractures within the family that as Mums we are trying to manage and support.
Children may be manipulated and lied too, told things about Mum that are not true and then left struggling to understand and separate what is truth from lies.
Before and on return from contact children’s behaviour may change towards us as Mums as only when with us do, they feel that unconditional love and a sense of safety, that means they can express emotions and feelings without fear. They may become aggressive and even violent towards us, they may withdraw, they may be desperate to be close to us, they always stay by our sides, or they may push us away desperate for connection yet fearful too feeling unworthy and unlovable or worried about being rejected.
This is another aspect of domestic abuse and another layer of trauma Mums are left managing and one that very often there is not any help with or even any acknowledgement of.
It can feel never ending, like there is no escape and almost hopeless as our children’s trauma starts to come out more and more when away from the perpetrators.
Other parents who have not been subjected to domestic abuse and even services we thought would help may not understand, they may judge us as Mums or even our children trying to label them unaware of the insidious nature of abuse and long-lasting impact.
This can lead to further isolation for Mums and feeling like there is nowhere to turn, often scared their parenting will be criticised when any parenting tips and guidance do not really apply or work, not when we are supporting children who have witnessed and been subjected to domestic abuse.
As a Mum in this situation, we do not need much, some understanding and a space to speak freely without fear of judgement allows us to have an outlet to make room again emotionally to keep going and to continue managing what we have been for so long until our children heal. This takes time and is even harder if contact has continued with the perpetrator.
As well as supporting our children as Mums, trying to hold everything together often having had to flee the family home or facing other issues that arise because of abuse we also, after having been subjected to domestic abuse ourselves, have our own feelings to process.
If you are a Mum reading this and it resonates, keep going, you are doing the best you can and that is more than good enough.
Remember it takes strength and courage to keep going, to get up every day, to feel like you are battling on all fronts emotionally, financially and to live with the impact on your children and on you every day often on high alert and triggered, so often taken back to the time you lived with the perpetrator by a word, a smell, a memory. All of this whilst still tending to the usual tasks of everyday life, it is a lot isn’t it when we take time to stop and think about it and no surprise our bucket starts to overflow.
What helps you come back to the here and now to regain a sense of control in those challenging and overwhelming moments? Have you done anything for yourself today? Could you leave the washing up when the children are in bed? Take that time for yourself. Feel guilty doing this?
Remember the oxygen mask analogy? If you do not put that mask on yourself first and have that oxygen you will not be able to give your child oxygen. We need to as Mums take care of ourselves too. Even when we feel we are at the bottom of the pile, we need to put into ourselves and create space for ourselves, so we can carry on.
What might help with your child? Are there any local specialist support services you can access for your child, specialists who understand the impact of domestic abuse on children? Domestic abuse services? A children’s counsellor who specialises and understands the impact of domestic abuse and trauma? A space for your child in which they can begin their journey of recovery whilst experiencing another relationship with an adult in which they are safe, and trust can be built.
Are there any specific behaviours they display you want to learn more about to try and help them find a way to manage? To learn grounding techniques together. To both recognise when you are heading out of your window of tolerance and find ways that will help return to it so you can feel a sense of calm again and reconnect? To help your child name their emotions and understand why they feel as they do? Can you connect with anyone who is going through a similar situation to reduce loneliness and isolation? Will reading up on the impact of domestic abuse on children help?
When I say help, I mean to show you this is not about you or your parenting, this is because of the domestic abuse they have witnessed/been subjected to.
Reach out, seek support, a space you feel at ease to talk, to feel supported, to lighten the load. That might be with a friend, it might be writing how you feel in a journal or it may be speaking to a professional, either within a domestic abuse service or a counsellor.
Remember you are your own expert so ask yourself what will help you to keep going, what do you need?
You have got this, you always have had, but it's tough, it can be overwhelming, and it is important we acknowledge this. You are not alone even though it feels that way.
Counselling can create a space in which you can speak openly, experience unconditional positive regard, to be heard and not feel judged, your feelings being validated. The therapeutic relationship can show you that it is possible to trust again, there are authentic and genuine people and help you to understand the impact of the abuse you have been subjected to.
It can help support you to identify new tools and build on the ones you already have to manage when you feel anxious or overwhelmed which is a completely normal response to abnormal circumstances – abuse.
It can be a space in which you cultivate self-efficacy, starting to believe in your own capabilities again, rebuilding your sense of self from within, turning off the voice of the perpetrator. Counsellors can be alongside you whilst you rediscover your own identity, who you are, what you do and don’t like, your values, beliefs and interests.
Counselling is a space for you to be you and to really find your voice and the space is for you to use without feeling guilty or selfish because you have a worth and you matter.