ASK LINDA, PSYCHOTHERAPIST, SINGLE MOM:
I read your post about how to help a child cope with parental abandonment. But my story’s a little more complicated. My ex – my son’s father – was extremely abusive. When my son was 18 months I realized he didn’t need a dad as badly as he needed a mother who wouldn’t cry herself to sleep every night and fear for the next time she’d be told how disgusting she was and be shaken like a rag doll, dragged by her hair, etc. I left, and thankfully my ex hasn’t found me or pursued custody. My question is… how do I talk to my son when he’s old enough to ask about his dad?
It is so important for you to understand that getting out of an abusive relationship is the best thing that you could have done for you and your child. Even though he was very young at the time he will have observed and absorbed the abuse and will have memories of the domestic violence hardwired into his brain and body–just as you do. You are both survivors of a very serious trauma.
What happens with this type of trauma is that unless it is resolved, it can be triggered later in life by many different stimuli. The stimulus could be anything, such as a scent, a sound, the time of day, a situation, a word, or the look on a partner’s face. What is happening is that we are reacting to the past and not to the current situation. Our bodies are going into fight or flight mode. We might have a panic attack or have high levels of anxiety or stress or depression.
People can have reactions years after a trauma occurs – get help as soon as you can
This fallout from the trauma may not happen immediately. Or it may be happening now and you may not even notice it because the toxic feelings are so much a part of your day-to-day life. However, please know that it is most likely there. I really recommend that you seek out a mental-health professional who specializes in trauma. Since your son is so young, you may need to do a little digging to find someone experienced in treating babies and young children who have survived trauma, but I recommend that you get your son evaluated if you can. It is a little-known fact that many people can have reactions from traumatic situations 20, 30 and even 50 years later. One good resource is the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
The best way to begin to manage a serious trauma is to process the experience through therapy. You would work with your therapist to understand how the situation with your ex affected you and your son. Over a period of time you would work to understand the emotions and the thoughts connected with the abuse and how they affect you today. You will come to understand when you are reacting to the past and then you will be able to make a choice about how to react in the here-and-now instead of unconsciously reacting out of habit.
Find ways to stay calm and positive, for yourself and your child
In the meantime, please do everything you can to take care of yourself so you can maintain a calm, tranquil. loving environment for your son and for yourself.
As for how you can talk to your son about his father, I’d recommend doing exactly the same thing as I said in my last post, about child abandonment: Try to keep your comments focused on the good qualities, the things that drew you to him, and any positive moments he might have had with your son. As your son grows, he may hear negative things from others and ask questions, which you can and should answer with honesty, while making it clear that your ex’s illness is his and his alone. Secrets and lies are always destructive in a family. Older children in this situation will need to have their experience of the abuse validated, not minimized, but they especially will need you to mirror the positive qualities of their other biological parent that you see in them.
Above all, keep yourself and your son safe!
Know that in leaving the abusive situation, you have made the best decision for everyone involved.
HAVE A QUESTION FOR LINDA? Sent it to info [at] singlewith.com, and put ASK LINDA in the subject heading. She may use your question for an upcoming post!