Lundy Bancroft is an author, workshop leader, and consultant on domestic abuse and child maltreatment. I studied his blog, this morning, after another protective mother recommended the following posts. I feature, quote, and summarize four of his posts below:
“KIDS WHO SIDE WITH THE ABUSER, PART 1
Several weeks ago, I wrote a post about kids who see through the abuser. To my surprise, it was the most popular piece I’d put up in a long time; a lot of my readers are trying to see through kids’ eyes. How do young people form their understandings of what is happening when their father (or step-father) abuses their mother? And how can they learn to see through the abuser’s lies and manipulations?
In the discussion that grew out of that post, many mothers shared their stories of children who weren’t seeing through the abuser. Unfortunately, that experience is a common one also. I’m going to examine some of the reasons in this post, which will be in two parts.
(In order to keep my language as simple as possible, I’m going to refer to the abuse perpetrator as a “batterer,” even if his abuse is almost entirely about emotional battering rather than physical or sexual violence. I’m using this term because I’m discussing homes where the primary source of trauma to the kids is Dad’s abuse of Mom, not either parent’s abuse of them directly — which is a different subject.)
The pursuit of safety: the number one source of a child’s trauma is witnessing the unrelenting abuse toward their mother. They are also afraid of what the batterer will do to them
Position 1: Side with Mom: There are two key advantages:
- Feel close to Mom, her nurturing and comfort
- Feel good about doing the right thing by standing against injustice
Abuse creates a huge power imbalance in the abuser’s favor
Position 2: Side with the abuser: The advantages and disadvantages:
- the batterer doesn’t target child for punishment if the child sides with him
- the child gets more freedom, more privileges
- the child feels less afraid (though still afraid for Mom and siblings)
- the child may decide that Mom deserves the abuse she gets from the batterer
- the child no longer feels close to Mom and longs for her nurturing and affection when withdrawing from her
- the child knows, deep down, they are on the side that’s mean and selfish and starts to hate self for being on the wrong side
Position 3: Stand in the middle
Kids may try staying close to Mom and win Dad’s approval by catering to him, try to get Mom to give in to Dad’s bullying, try to mediate conflicts, but there are serious problems:
- the stress is overwhelming and causes anxiety
- overwhelming load to try keeping everyone happy
- trying to parent the whole family
- batterer is not satisfied when child is not outright loyal
- batterer is not satisfied when child is not rejecting and demeaning Mom
- batterer will make it painfully clear, even if not spoken aloud, about how the child needs to comply to him
As you can see, there’s no great place to be. Kids who witness abuse try out all three of these positions, and stay in them for varying lengths of time as they experience the advantages and the wounds of the spot they’re occupying.
Kids try to escape the pain of how wrong it all is
- children feel the pain of injustice deeply inside
- children get super upset when they perceive unfairness happening to anyone and when injustice is happening to someone they love, it eats them up inside
- children experience their mothers almost as extensions of themselves so they feel pain of what the batterer is doing to Mom and as a wrong directly to them. It hurts them double
- in severe distress, it becomes tempting for kids to decide that Mom is largely, or even primarily, at fault for what’s being done to her
And the abuser never stops reminding them – without saying it directly, of course, but he always has ways to get his messages across – that this escape path is open to them. His unspoken message is, Look at me, I don’t feel your mother’s pain, so you don’t need to either. Just join me and you’ll be away from all that.
This relief comes on top of all the other benefits of siding with the abuser.
So notice this striking point: one of the main reasons why kids side with the abuser is because they’re in so much pain about what he has done. This appears contradictory on the surface, but when you use your imagination to put yourself in the child’s position, it starts to make sense. And it helps to explain why some kids who have been allied with Mom for years will abruptly – and heartbreakingly – pop over to the dark side
KIDS WHO SIDE WITH ABUSER, PART 2
There are a few additional causes that are as important as the ones I examined in Part 1.
Manipulation By the Abuser
- most domestic abusers have strong manipulative skills
- courts, especially custody courts, love a well-educated batterer
- get Mom upset when she’s trying to spend good time with the kids to make her look hysterical and moody
- undermine her appropriate efforts to set limits and courts enable the batterer
- batterer wounds children, when he becomes angry with children, which causes trauma bonds (which, tragically, make his nice times more dazzling)
- good manipulators are good liars. It is unbearable to children to know that one of their parents is routinely and deliberately dishonest with them. This makes children more confused, over the years, if they continue to side with the batterer
- courts do not typically consider the evidence and, instead, often side with the batterer
- takes various steps to keep Mom financially broke so he gets the nice things, looks generous, and Mom looks stingy
- kisses up to relatives of Mom to make him look good and Mom bad
- control kids’ access to what they want i.e. buys children a car but only if they come to live primarily with him
The custody courts are the absolute kings and queens of euphemism. They really can’t get it that a domestic abuser loves to destroy the mother’s parental authority?
Using Societal Messages to His Advantage
The predominant culture in the U.S. and across much of the globe, teaches that:
* Mom’s have the primary responsibility for kids, including for keeping them safe.
* Dads are to be admired if they make any significant contribution to child rearing (in other words, mothers and fathers are judged by entirely different standards, including by the courts).
* Mothers are hysterical and worry too much about nothing.
* Kids can’t turn out okay without a father, especially not boys. They need their father no matter how abusive he is or how absent he has been.
Children also can’t help absorbing the powerful reality that in modern society men have far more power than women do. So siding with the abuser doesn’t just put you on the winning side within your own family’s power dynamic, it puts you on the privileged side in the world. This reality is especially seductive for boys, who see that becoming like their abusive Dad opens for them a whole world that they can exploit.
Using Toxicity that Already Exists in the Family Tree
Let’s face it, most family trees have their own issues with addiction, domestic violence, greed, child sexual abuse, narcissism, and other toxic patterns. I’ve rarely talked to anyone who didn’t have at least some of these serious problems present in a few key relatives, and for some people the family tree is riddled with them. (And this is true whether your family tree is rich or poor, formally educated or not, from this culture or from that culture.)
The abuser often builds allies by connecting to toxic individuals among the relatives. He especially loves it when he can build relationships with toxic relatives of Mom’s, and thereby use her own people against her.
The custody courts just eat this one up. They’ll say to Mom, in a tone of contempt, “Your own parents, and one of your sisters as well, have told us that you’re the problem.” Have they bothered to look into what these people are like? Of course not. If they did, they’d find out exactly why these people would side with a man who was abusing their daughter or their sister.
These unholy alliances can influence children. The message from Dad, whether actually spoken aloud or not, is, “See how I get along with everyone, while Mom is refusing to speak to several of them?”
Fortunately these maneuvers are much harder to pull off when the Mom has a healthier family tree, and it’s even better if the abuser himself has pretty healthy relatives. But I talk to a lot of mothers who weren’t even aware of how much toxicity there was among their own relatives until they started to see people lining up behind the abuser.
Men who care about their children don’t abuse the children’s mother. The damage that it does to children when you abuse their mother is so obvious that you simply can’t miss it — unless you really only care about yourself. The notion that a man can abuse the mother of his children but still be a good father is absurd; abusing a mother is the positive definition of terrible fathering.
But good luck getting toxic relatives – or the custody courts, which currently are as toxic as your worst relatives – to see that obvious fact.
KIDS WHO SEE THROUGH THE ABUSER
- kids see clearly where the abuse is coming from
- kids want Dad to stop bullying Mom and to stop bullying them
- kids want Dad to stop trying to turn them against Mom
- kids get sick of Dad always blaming Mom
- kids understand why Mom is afraid of the batterer
- kids feel that their Mom really cares about them
- kids see Dad’s show of caring seems to end up being all about him
Kids who see the abuser for what he is face painful challenges:
- profound grief about the dad they wish they had as they long for a kind, responsible father
- fury about the cruelty they were forced to survive and fear of their own rage
- guilt they couldn’t stop the abuse and guilt for pulling away from Dad
- guilt for when they joined with Dad and were mean to Mom
- feel responsible for younger siblings who have to see Dad
- turmoil of mixed emotions i.e. hoping he will change, wanting to see Dad more or less, wanting to give up on it all
- feeling profoundly liberated once they can see through the abuser and pull away from the abuser
- grow closer to Mom and siblings once they acknowledge that Dad is 100% responsible for his actions, Mom wasn’t causing his behavior, and neither were the kids
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.
REBUILDING SEVERED RELATIONSHIPS
AKA KIDS WHO SIDE WITH THE ABUSER, PART 3
By the time children pull away from their mothers, they’re profoundly wounded. They wouldn’t pull away otherwise. On a deep level they desperately want to be close to her. Those loving feelings may be buried under huge piles of emotional injury, but they’re still there. They distanced themselves because they couldn’t stand the huge price the abuser made them pay for being close to her; or they couldn’t tolerate living in the fear that the abuser would hurt them when he was hurting her; or they couldn’t take the pain of how unjust and unfair it all was, so they escaped all that pain by deciding the abuse was her own fault.
Sometimes they even start to look like they hate her. They start to say the same kinds of demeaning and hateful things to her, and about her, that their father does. They start to make these ugly facial expressions that look disturbingly similar to his.
But all of this has very little to do with their genuine resentments towards her. That’s not what genuine resentment looks like. (They may have quite a bit of that inside them too, but that’s a different question which I’ll talk about farther down.) What you’re seeing is the outcome of a kid witnessing years of abuse, and then being deliberately messed with in all kinds of mental ways by the perpetrator of that abuse.
THE REBUILDING PROCESS
First phase: The child is emotionally unreachable
If the child does pull away from you completely, there will be a period when there’s not a lot you can do. Attempting to pressure or beg a child to come back emotionally (or to literally come back home) will tend to play into the abuser’s hand because it can push the kid further away.
During this period do stay in touch, but spread your contacts out. If the child is still accepting texts or FB messages from you, or whatever it may be, send a message once in a while. Keep those lighthearted, even though you of course aren’t feeling that way. Give a few points of news from your life and make it sound like you’re doing okay, even if you’re quite broken up inside. Your child wants signs that your life is moving forward and that you’re progressing toward a happier place. Kids crave these signs because:
* they feel so guilty about their distance from you (and that guilt will not propel them back toward you; even though it may seem contradictory, those guilt feelings actually push them further away)
* their father indoctrinates them with the view that you’re an impossibly unhappy, embittered person who is always out to find what’s wrong with things
* they want to believe in their own capacity to heal, and if they see you healing that helps them to have faith that someday they will too
Ask about their lives even if you know they won’t respond; it’s a way of saying that you care about what’s going on with them. Aim for a tone that pretends that you’re having normal communication with them, even though you obviously aren’t.
Avoid sadness or anything that the child can seize on as self-pity. That means it’s best not to say how much you miss them or how hard it was not to see them on their birthday. Those feelings are real and justified, but expressing them won’t help now; those have to come way later in the process.
Instead, say positive things like, “You’re always in my thoughts,” without letting it get heavy.
An abusive man can’t be a model for his children of what they need to work toward. So try to be a role model for them by talking about your friendships, the ways you’re taking care of your health, the things you’re looking forward to. In this way you’re sending them the message that these are the things that matter in life. The abuser can offer them a sense of superiority, can offer them money and material luxuries, and can offer them inappropriate freedoms. But he can’t offer them the things that really matter in life. You can remind them of those things simply by describing the role they play in your own life.
But don’t preach these ideas at them. Just try to live a life that illustrates those ideas, and share about your life.
If there’s any chance that an actual paper letter will get through to them, send one every few months. A physical artifact is different from an online message. It’s like having a piece of you in their hands.
I can’t answer the question of how often to write. It’s something you have to feel out. The goal is to make it often enough that the child knows you’re there and haven’t given up, but far enough apart that it doesn’t feel like pressure or pleading for contact with them.
If the child tells you not to contact them, I believe it’s best to respect that. But if they haven’t said that explicitly, keep sending them things even if they never respond, and no matter how long goes by.
Second phase: The child makes small contacts with you
It might begin with a short text about a logistical issue. (“Do you know where my birth certificate is?”) Or a simple, “Hi, how are you?”
Your heart naturally starts to race, and you want to jump all over this. Fight hard against that temptation, though. Instead, send a casual-sounding response along the lines of, “Hi, it’s good to hear from you.” And then answer the question they’re asking and leave it at that.
Move slowly. I’ve observed that kids are easy to scare off during this phase. Let them move toward you at their own pace.
This may almost feel harder for you than having them out of touch altogether. It’s like having your love for them dangled in front of you. Gather your strength, because this period is crucial.
If they ask to get together with you, do your best to have that meeting (and the next few, if more meetings follow) be lighthearted. Don’t try for a super-long hug, don’t start telling them anything about what their father is really like, do your best not to cry. Ask yourself, “How do I handle this in a way that will make them want to see me again?”
You’ll need to take it on faith that your child has missed you a lot. Believe me, they have. But they’re not going to say that the first few times they see you, and it’s a mistake to bring it up (as in, “Have you missed me?”).
Believe it or not, it’s actually best not to ask them right away if they’d like to get together again. They don’t want to be put on the spot about that. Wait a few days, maybe even a week. And even then, make it more like an open door than an invitation, as in, “It was great to see you. Let’s do it again when the time is right for you.”
A quick side note: As you’re reading this, you may be thinking, “But Lundy, this is all so incredibly unfair. I’m their mother! They owe me so much better than this!” I understand how you feel. But this moment isn’t about fair and unfair; it’s about what works and what doesn’t work when dealing with a very traumatized, brainwashed, and confused child. Forget fairness for now and stay focused on getting this relationship going again.
Third phase: Some degree of real reconnection starts to happen
I’m currently in touch with three or four mothers whose relationships with a child are in this phase, and they are extremely happy. It’s a wonderful thing.
But you need to stay cautious.
For example, your child is likely to test the waters by telling you some things that they’re upset at their dad about, or things they’re starting to realize about him. It’s so tempting at this point to say, “Oh my God, it’s such a relief that you’re getting what a vicious bastard he is!” You will lose the ground you’ve gained if you go there. (This kind of maneuver works for the abuser, but it does not work for the mom – it’s a completely different set of dynamics.)
Keep your own feelings and history out of it for now, and stay focused on the child’s feelings. “That sounds hard. He shouldn’t treat you that way. You don’t deserve that.” Those kinds of statements are all you want to say. It’s fine to (calmly) name his behavior as wrong, but don’t say anything bad about him as a person (that he’s selfish, that he’s abusive, etc.).
If your child continues to move closer – and it’s likely to be quite gradual – there will come a point where you’re connected enough that you can say, “I’ve had some similar experiences with your dad to what you’re dealing with, as you may remember. If there comes a time when it would be helpful to you to know what happened, I’m fine with telling you.”
Try to say nothing more than that. They’ll let you know what they’re ready to deal with, and when.
I realize that what I’m asking you to do takes almost super-human strength, and that these are not fair things to ask. But I’ve watched a lot of moms go through this process. And I’ve seen quite a number of successes. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen quite a few examples where the child’s approach didn’t last long and he or she was gone again. I want to see you succeed.
Can Other People Help Reach the Child?
I’ve seen occasional times when there was a good effect from having a relative connect to the child if it’s a relative the child really likes. What I’ve seen most helpful is when it’s a sibling – in other words, one of your other children.
A sibling can sometimes get away with being a little more direct, but it depends on how close the kids are to each other. It’s best even for the sibling to think of it as a process of trying to calmly guide a swimmer to safety who has gotten caught in a dangerous riptide. (I find this analogy helpful because when you fight hard against a riptide, you make things more dangerous, not better.)
Owning What You Need to Own
This is going to be my last point, but it’s another tough one. Kids who grow up around a domestic abuser accumulate a lot of resentments toward their mother, not just toward the abuser. Many of these resentments are the products of distortions caused by the abuser, as I’ve pointed out. But they aren’t all. The kids have some justifiable complaints. (I can say this because kids have justifiable complaints against any parent. My children certainly have valid grievances against me, and I’ve needed to own those.)
Now, when you’ve been the target of all this terrible abuse, and then on top of that you’ve had your children driven away from you, the last thing you feel like doing is being the one to apologize. And I’m certainly not asking you to apologize for anything their father did, since that’s beyond your control. But try to push through all that hurt enough to be able to offer sincere apologies for actions of yours that you do feel bad about, and for things you could have done better. Kids really need this from their mothers.
Plus, it helps distinguish you from their abusive dad, who is never going to own anything in a sincere and heartfelt way. In other words, one of the ways in which you can remind them how different you are from him is by demonstrating your ability to accept responsibility for your actions, and to give them room to have hurt feelings and resentments about those things. He’ll never do that.
Don’t look for apologies in return from them until a long time from now. If your relationship continues to heal, that day will come.
A couple of closing thoughts: I know that none of what I’ve written here is any help to mothers whose kids won’t allow contact, especially when that goes on for years. My heart goes out to you. I hold onto the hope that someday your children will return to you, and that someday the society will recognize what a horrible atrocity it is when an abusive man takes the ultimate step of tearing a woman’s children away from her.
The second thought is that I hear many, many stories from mothers about successfully rebuilding relationships with a child if he or she does reach out, even if at first the contact is tiny. I’ve decided to create a section of my website for stories from mothers about growing back close to children who had been turned against you by their abusive father. If you’d be willing to share your story (we can change all the names before we put the story up), please send it to:
Stories can be brief or long; we could handle anything up to 5000 words and maybe more.”