Q: Hi, I’m in search of information to help my daughters and sons understand the mindset of the victims of abuse. I’m a survivor. Trying to explain what I’ve been through has been hard. Before I set these young people loose into the world, I want them to know how to spot the different abuses and protect themselves and loved ones, but most of all learn empathy for victims of all abuse.
Thank you, K.
A: Hi K,
I’m sorry you had to survive an abuser and hopefully, you’ve been able to fully disconnect from that person. Of course, you want your kids to avoid an abuser’s trap—what parent wouldn’t? But let’s start first with what trauma can do to our mindset, and how that might be making it difficult for your children to truly understand what you, and possibly they, have been through.
It can take a while for survivors to process the trauma of abuse. Some survivors I’ve spoken to say it took years before they could even admit to themselves what happened was abuse, and then years longer to fully untangle how the abuser’s tactics permeated so much of their daily lives. This might be important to keep in mind as kids process trauma as well, assuming they were in your care during your time with an abusive partner. (If they are children that you had post-abuse, then this may not apply.)
But assuming they were present during the abuse, even if they were young, even if you believe you shielded them from the worst, even if the abuse was short-lived, they went through trauma as witnesses and bystanders. And that could be affecting all different parts of their life, including their ability to fully understand what you and they went through. Abuse is not always the easiest thing to explain, especially when abusers can often play dual roles. They can be charming and seemingly caring one moment, and manipulative and frightening the next.
It may be helpful to read a little bit about Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, and learn their ACE score. Children and adults process trauma and its after-effects, such as PTSD, differently. In children, post-traumatic stress disorder can look like irritability, social withdrawal, avoidance of things or people that remind them of the trauma, persistent worry, and an inability to attach to people.
Luckily, symptoms of PTSD can be more easily reversible in children than adults given their different brain chemistries. You may want to read this article to learn more about the benefits of therapy for kids if they’re showing any of these signs. It’s important that their primary care physician know there was trauma in their past as it may help predict or identify health issues in the future.
Now let’s talk empathy. This is a valuable skill we should all have in spades. But having the capacity to feel what others feel doesn’t come naturally to everyone, and depending on the age of your kids, might not even be in their skill set quite yet. Cognitive components of empathy begin around age 6 or 7, says Erin Walsh, M.A. and David Walsh, Ph.D., for Psychology Today. But there are ways to foster empathy, say the Walshes. A few of their tips:
Finally, teaching your kids about warning signs of dangerous and potentially abusive partners is, indeed, important. I think one of the best places to start this conversation, at any age, is to talk boundaries. Safe people respect others’ boundaries, whether they’re emotional boundaries or physical boundaries. This means no one is allowed to touch their body without their permission. And no one is allowed to force them to do something they’re not comfortable with— “no” is a complete sentence and doesn’t require further explanation.
As they get older and start contemplating romantic relationships, it’s important to continue these talks regularly. What does a healthy relationship look like? What are some green flags that indicate safe people? And what are some red flags that potentially signal danger ahead?
This education in domestic violence can prepare them to also become allies for others. When they spot the warning signs in a friend’s relationship, they may feel more comfortable speaking up and helping others to learn about abuse warning signs.