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A Way Through the Weeds:

Guidance for women navigating divorce and abuse

Helping Your Child Overcome Abuse

There are few things in life worse than watching your child in pain, particularly when that pain has been inflicted by someone who was supposed to be their protector and champion. Those parents who have seen their children the victims of abuse, be it physical, sexual, or emotional, not only have to deal with their own reactions to the abuse; they also need to help their children deal with their reactions and take action to prevent it from happening again.

It is a tall order.

This post will provide some basic, yet essential, guidance for supporting your child through the healing process.

Reassure your child.

In the moments after you realize your child has been harmed, you will go into fight, flight, or freeze mode. You may want to rip the perpetrator's throat out. You may want to run away and deny anything bad has happened. You may feel completely blank and detached from reality. You may feel all at the same time. Those are normal, healthy reactions.

However, the single most important thing you can do for your child in those moments of panic is to take a deep breath (or two or three), wrap your child in a tender (not stifling) embrace, and say, "I want you to know this is not your fault. You did not do anything wrong. I am going to do everything in my power to keep you safe from now on."

Your child has just become a potential trauma victim, and many victims experience guilt, regardless of how innocent they are. You cannot tell them too convincingly or too frequently that they did not deserve to be harmed and they did not cause the harm, even if they were behaving badly when the incident occurred.

Call a friend.

Once you know or suspect abuse has occurred, call a BFF. Getting the assistance you need is critical if you are to have the strength and perseverance to help your child. In order to give your child the tools to overcome their experience, you must be their advocate.

The road on which you must walk as your child's advocate is thorny, rocky, and steep. At times it will feel never-ending. You will sometimes doubt you can continue another step. This is where your support system comes in.

I will cover this topic in greater depth in another post, but you must take advantage of every support you can at this time: friends, family, family court advocates, prosecution advocates, police, counselors (for you and your child), church, social programs such as WIC and SNAP. Whatever makes your life a little more bearable--as long as it is not a negative coping strategy such as drugs or alcohol--should be utilized.

The more support you have, the greater will be your capacity to support your child.

Contact the authorities.

I won't lie. The decision to call the police or the Department of Children, Youth, and Families may be one of the hardest you will ever make. You may feel conflicted between a fierce desire to protect your child and loyalty to the perpetrator, particularly if it is a family member or close friend.

You may stand with your hand hovering on the Send button thinking, "If I do this, we may have to go to court. My child may have to testify. What if they go to jail?" The truth is, those are all possibilities, depending on the situation.

However, let me tell you a few things.

  1. You are not the one bringing the case; the State is. If you don't want to attend a single pre-trial hearing, you don't have to. Your child will not even be allowed to (depending on their age).

  2. This process takes a LONG time. Figure at least a year. Before a trial comes, if it comes, both you and your child will have a significant amount of time to work with counselors, prosecutors, and advocates to prepare you for any testifying that will occur.

  3. You have more power than you think. The prosecutor will evaluate the facts of the case and determine the charges. They will not bring a charge they know won't stick. If the law says the crime is a misdemeanor, they won't try it as a felony no matter how much you may want to see the perpetrator on Death Row. However, the prosecutor will consult you about those charges, and your opinion does carry some weight. My recommendation? Give yourself time before weighing in on the charges. Let the experts do their job until you have had time to gain a degree of equilibrium. If it comes down to a trial and you feel that is not in your child's best interest, you can always recommend that the prosecutor reduce the charges in exchange for a plea deal.

  4. You will never regret protecting your child. Sometimes it is hard to do what it takes to keep our children safe, but it is always worth it. If fear is keeping you from making the call, ask yourself one question: What will my child say to me 10 years from now if I don't make the call? Then pick up the phone.

Get your child a therapist skilled in trauma-based treatments for children.

This is pretty easy, right? You get online, search for "child therapists," read the bios and reviews, and pick the best one.

Ha. Not so much.

What is more likely is that you do all of the above, pick a person who is very nice, keep your kid in therapy for a year, feel like there is no progress being made, and then start all over again, this time feeling like you've wasted a year, have failed to help your child at all, and should have known better in the first place.

If you have gone through that process, let me encourage you. As long as your child was not harmed in the therapy, it wasn't a waste. If they had a good relationship with the therapist, that has put them in a position to make progress even more quickly when you find the one that fits. Sometimes the chemistry is just not right, for whatever reason.

Whatever you do, don't blame yourself. Praise yourself for putting the effort into helping your child. Do some more research, and try again.

Here are a few tips to help you find the right therapist for your child:

  1. Your child needs an expert in trauma-based therapy. Abuse is potential trauma. If a practitioner's bio doesn't specifically mention trauma-based approaches, keep looking.

  2. Specialized traumas require specialized treatments. All traumas are not the same. If your child has been subjected to sexual abuse, find a specialist in that area, even if you have to travel a little. If your child is very young, find a therapist skilled in play, art, and/or drama therapy. The right treatment will hasten and deepen your child's healing.

  3. Visit the therapist before bringing your child. Take a close look at the treatment space. Is it welcoming? If you have a young child, are there toys and games in sight? Do they have sand trays, dolls, figurines, and the like? (If a person advertises play therapy and does not have a well-equipped play space, walk away. Don't look back.) Do you connect with the therapist? Your child's opinion obviously counts in this, but yours does too. Can the therapist outline a basic plan for determining treatment (e.g. evaluation, treatment modalities, frequency of plan review, etc.)? Can the therapist explain their trauma approach to you in simple, understandable language?

  4. Evaluate your child's progress and hold the therapist accountable. This is especially challenging for those of us who are not trained child trauma therapists. We don't know what to do, which is why we hire an "expert." What kind of person hires an expert and then tells them they are incompetent? A parent. You may not believe it, but you really do know your child better than anyone else...except your child. If you are seeing worsening symptoms or a lack of improvement, talk to the therapist in private. Ask where they think your child is in the process. What kind of milestones are they perhaps seeing that you don't? What alternative approaches might be tried in session? If, over the course of a year or so, you repeatedly get unsatisfactory answers, start looking elsewhere. Trust your instincts.

Be patient.

This seems to directly contradict #4 above, but it doesn't really. Child therapy and the related healing can be a much longer process than you expect. The child is in therapy because their physical and emotional space have been violated. It is unreasonable to expect them to quickly trust a perfect stranger that they meet in a completely artificial setting. It may be months, even a year, before the child begins to show progress in behavior, emotional responses, and the like.

Even more maddening, the child's behavior may begin to worsen because they are beginning to make progress in therapy. When you are the one investing time, money, and emotional energy into helping your child only to have them kick you, punch you, call you an idiot, and scream "I hate you!!!" at the top of their lungs, it can be very tempting to lash back in some way.

In that moment, repeat after me: "This behavior is a sign that I am a safe place. This behavior is a sign that I am a safe place. This behavior is a sign that I am a safe place." It's true. That hateful behavior, particularly if it is displayed primarily with you, is a banner identifying you as the most secure relationship they have.

After patting yourself on the back, use whatever pre-determined form of discipline you use to firmly and lovingly remind your child that you will not tolerate being treated that way, but they are still loved.

Love your child.

I mean this in all sincerity. Love is, beyond a doubt, the single most important gift we give our children. This does not mean we don't discipline or scold or occasionally lose our temper. It doesn't even mean we always like our children. What it does mean is that we always try to put our child's best interests first and foremost.

Let me clarify that statement a bit. Sometimes your child's best interests are directly opposed to your child's desires. (Picture the child who, the day after Halloween, wants to eat all his candy in one sitting.) Sometimes your child's best interests are actually your best interests. (See "Call a friend" above.) Sometimes your child's best interests are directly opposed to your desires.

How do we determine our child's best interests? Sometimes it can difficult, so it helps to bring it down to the absolute basics.

  • Does this action increase my child's physical and emotional safety?

  • Does this action validate my child's personhood? (Does it affirm his/her right to feel, think, and speak according to their conscience, even if it is in opposition to those they love?)

  • Does this action challenge my child to grow and develop cognitively, emotionally, socially, and physically in a healthy way?

There will be times when these questions still don't resolve your indecision. When in doubt, pray. Hard. Get input from people you trust (counselors, family, BFFs). And then trust your gut. You know more than you think you do.

When all else fails, or perhaps before all else fails, love on your child. Snuggle on the couch and watch Frozen for the umpteenth time. Spend an hour in the pool together. Read bedtime stories. Go for a mystery drive. Eat pizza in the living room. Watch your baby sleep, even if your baby is sweet sixteen.

Because those are the moments that truly bring healing.

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