A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

When the kids blame the victim too

When the victim’s children blame the victim for breaking up the family, it’s doubly painful. And really tricky to navigate because the survivor has to try to speak the truth without unduly denigrating the abuser, and remain a good parent who loves, nurtures, educates and appropriately disciplines the kids — all things that the abuser won’t be doing when the kids are with him, because his love is manipulative and selfish, his education is full of lies and half-truths, his nurture is absent, and his discipline will be heavy-handed or non-existent.

Here is vignette, reproduced with permission from a survivor’s email:

I was in an abusive marriage for fifteen years, and I have two children under nine. I have been separated for over a year and am soon to finalize my divorce. The children see their father, and he & I are on “friendly” terms, but he still tries to manipulate me and my daughter to take him back. I am not convinced he has had a heart change, despite his seeing a counselor. It is really hard for my daughter, he has her convinced he has changed and she now blames me for the divorce.

My response: My ex had our daughter wrapped round his little finger for years after separation. She blamed me for the separation and divorce, and was very loyal to him. She used to accuse me of heaps of things with venomous unfairness, especially after an access visit with him. When she came back after visitation it was like hearing his abuse but it was coming out of her mouth rather than his.

The peak age for this one-sided loyalty to occur is (so far as I can remember from my reading) about 8 to 11, when, because of their developmental stage, kids tend to see moral issues in black and white. As they grow into adolescence they begin to see shades of grey in moral issues and to form their own opinions, so they are less malleable to the manipulations of one person (the abuser). Unfortunately for you, you are just at the start of this developmental stage with your daughter. Hang in there! And don’t blame yourself!

And tell her the concise truth, like: “I left dad because I didn’t feel safe with him.” That is true, it’s talking about your opinion and your feelings, without denigrating him. She may not fully believe you, but she will partially hear you.

Keep asserting to your daughter your right to have your own views and feelings, and to make your own judgement calls which are different from dad’s. Assert it gently and firmly, like a stuck record. She will still be manipulated by him, but at the same time she will be quietly (subliminally) aware of your solidity in maintaining your own identity and prioritising safety and life-affirming decisions for each member of the family. You are modelling healthy living to her, which she will realise in time, even if she doesn’t realise it yet.

This post was first published Jan 11 2012 at my notunderbondage blog.

31 Comments

  1. joepote01

    I appreciate you blogging on this topic, Barbara. This was a very difficult reality for me to deal with during and after divorce…my younger children blaming me for the divorce. Things are much better, now, but it was very painful and emotional, at the time.

  2. BeenThereDoneThat

    For all that I went through, I just can’t imagine the pain of women who have to do it with younger children, including all the custody and visitation mess. I don’t know any statistics on all of this, but I do know that when I left my husband of 25 years my 17 1/2 year old and 21 year old had no sympathy for me. They wouldn’t come and see me in my furnished apartment that I moved to after living in a bedroom of friends for 3 months. On Christmas Day I was invited back to (my) the house, but I refused. My mother came to see me (as she always did on Christmas) and just watched me cry all day. My children would only meet me on Christmas Eve in a restaurant to exchange gifts. It was damning and embarrassing. Years later, I still don’t have the relationship that I (thought I) had with my children. Now I have grandchildren and I don’t want to lose them by bringing it all up. My children refused years ago to go to a counselor with me to just talk it out, but it is clear they have issues with me. (Certainly, I was frustrated a lot and angry some, but I was also doing the job of (homeschooling) mom, which didn’t make me a chum.) What my children still refuse to accept is that I was the one who carried out decisions made together with my spouse. When it came down to it, he usually backed away and wanted to be their friend.

    So, although growing children are supposed to start thinking for themselves in their teen years, it seems that there can be a large blind spot where they refuse to see what the abusive parent has done. As for much of the church and humanity, there is this feeling of, so what? “Everybody gets angry. Get over it.”

    • This indirectly brings up the question of “From the point of view of the kids’ development, what is the best age for kids to be when their mother leaves an abusive marriage?'” I asked that question to a worker in the women’s refuge when I was in there. She raised her eyebrows and made some kind of tangential non-explicit answer.

      I have often pondered my question since then. I have been close friends with a victim who had several kids to an abuser and then left him. The youngest child was just a baby when she left, and I observed as the years went on that he seemed to be virtually undamaged by the abuse. The older kids (preschool and primary at the time their mother left) were all affected by the abuse. I’ve also seen cases where the abuser manages to win one particular child more over to his side, as his special buddy.

      I may be wrong, but my general conclusions (emphasis on general as there are many exceptions) from having known and or heard many victims’ stories, is that the most intractable cases of the offspring being dead set against their mother (the victim) occur when the victim has stayed with the abuser for most of their growing up years; these kids seem fairly often to end up as adults who unrelentingly judge and condemn mum. If they were still children or adolescent when their mother left, they may judge mum but eventually (if they live with her) they soften somewhat and come to realise that she is not the wicked witch; but this softening seems to happen less commonly if the children were at the end of adolescence or fully grown adults when mum separated from dad.

      However, my conclusions are just anecdotal observations and please don’t give them too much weight. It would be very interesting to see research on this issue, but I am not aware that any has been done.

      • Forrest

        Although you speak of your conclusions as being based on anecdotal evidence, they ring true. Too many similarities with other’s experiences for there not to be some validity there. I think you have hit the nail on the head again, Barbara.

      • Not Too Late

        “However, my conclusions are just anecdotal observations and please don’t give them too much weight. It would be very interesting to see research on this issue, but I am not aware that any has been done.”

        It sure would be interesting. My own case confirms your theory. My oldest is dead set against me and my youngest has an affectionate and close relationship with me. Actually, the position they are on the spectrum of alignment with me is inversely proportional to the number of years they lived with the abuse.

        That said, I don’t regret leaving when I did. For many reasons, it would have been near impossible trying to leave any earlier, when my oldest was still young and when I wouldn’t have been able to work. I don’t think there’s an ideal time to leave. Some even choose to leave only when their kids have grown up, for reasons such as having to negotiate custody and visitation.

        In the end, women do have to weigh up all these factors and live with the consequences of their decisions, and I hope we don’t end up feeling guilty over the outcomes we can’t control. The effects of abuse are deep, and the responsibility lies squarely on the abuser.

      • Not Too Late: thank you. You put it all so well.

      • Lindsey Morales

        I left my abuser when my children were almost 2, and almost 3. They are now 6 & 7. My son is older, he frequently comes home from the every-other-weekend visits accusing me of “breaking our home.” My daughter always *appears* to be unscathed, but she is very internal, so I’m never sure what’s going on in her little head. My children don’t remember what it was like in our home before the divorce, but they still manifest symptoms of living in high stress environments. My son panics easily when he feels a loss of control, my daughter is withdrawn. I think my kids mostly feel conflicted. At their dad’s house they hear that I’m a home-breaker, and that I’m keeping him from having more time with them, they come home angry with me. But at the same time, they are confused by his abusive actions toward them- when he unleashes his fury at them because one of them left a toy on the floor (“If I tripped and DIED, it would have been YOUR FAULT!!!”). I’m leaning toward thinking that divorcing when they were so young was better in some ways, because we got out before more damage could be done to them (except for the damage he does every other weekend). But they also don’t remember what it was like, so they don’t understand WHY our lives are like this, and they feel like I’m the one to blame. I wish I knew what magic words to say to them! I’m careful not to say anything derogatory about their dad, they don’t need MORE stress, but it just doesn’t seem fair that my actions to protect them, because I love them, makes them hate me. It scares me that the peak age for one-sided loyalty is coming!

      • Brenda R

        Lindsey,
        I had similar issues when my oldest 2 children were young. As time went on and they saw the difference between what dad was saying and the way he acted vs. mom, they began to understand the truth. I never said a word about their dad, but as they grew older and asked I answered as honestly as I could without giving too much detail.

        I don’t understand the way this works now. When I was divorced at that time there were orders right in the custody agreement preventing either person from alienating the children from the other parent. No name calling, stories etc….Shouldn’t you be able to contact the Friend of the Court to put a hault to this kind of stuff.

        Eventually, well only a couple of years after the divorce, dear old dad moved out of state so he wasn’t part of the picture all that much and when they did see him it wasn’t pleasant and they quit going to see him at all.

  3. Brenda R

    My heart goes out to all of you who’s children do not understand what went on sometimes before their very eyes. My experience with this is limited although my son blames me for his very life and anything he or his father has ever done wrong. I believe it is because I am within ear shot and his father hasn’t been for 30 years. The last time he saw his dad he hit him with a paddle (several times) and even though I was not there it was still my fault. He doesn’t blame me for divorcing, but for allowing court ordered visitation which I had no control over. His dad moved out of state soon after which kept my son from abuse but it did not cure the mental impact. I pray for him everyday. He hasn’t spoke to me in over 2 years after my pointing out his abusive behavior towards his girlfriend and my mother. I feel like I am repeating myself. I must have talked about this on here before.

    • Thanks Brenda. personally I don’t mind if you repeat stuff as I don’t remember all the things that others have told me.

  4. br0nz18

    Yep…adult children can also blame the victim who leaves and instigates divorce. For me, it has not often been overt animosity but it simmers there just under the surface and I can feel it…just like I could feel my ex-s anger although he never verbally or physically expressed it. I am slowly coming to accept that my sons may never understand what happened in the marriage nor why I left their dad. I just try to maintain as good a relationship with them as I can…and love them and my grandchildren!

    • Br0nz, one of the saddest stories I heard was of adult children who blamed their mum for divorcing their dad because “it broke up their inheritance.” Just a weeny bit of entitlement there, methinks?

      • Brenda R

        I have told my children it is my money until I’m gone. My girls understand that and expect nothing less. My son got mad when I wouldn’t give him money because I knew how he would use it. Their dad didn’t have any money. I am the saver.

      • His Child

        Yup, my kids said that too, but I don’t hold that against them,’cuz I know too well who put that thought into their young heads…

  5. Forrest

    Reblogged this on Tùr Làidir.

  6. Heather2

    My original comment just disappeared. Perhaps it is just as well. However, Barbara, I wish to thank you for bringing this to my attention. I have agonized over the distance, blame, and treatment by youngest child, now 24. It was as though I was receiving more covert abuse from that child. My ex once told me that she was more like him than her older siblings. How prophetic!

    I have made choices recently that will allow me to keep the door open but protect my already fragile heart.

    Thank you and please add me to more proof of your findings.

    • I have made choices recently that will allow me to keep the door open but protect my already fragile heart.

      and in that sentence there is a whole understory and backstory. . . thanks Heather. My heart goes out to you, and I admire you for your bravery and good sense in making those choices.

      • Heather2

        Thank you, Barbara. I appreciate your compassion and affirmation.

    • I don’t know what happened to your original comment Heather, but sometimes that happens to me too. I bang away on the keyboard for some time composing a longish comment (on this blog or, more often, on another blog) and then the fingers of God or Providence whip it away to some lost place in some other galaxy. And then I realise that it was probably a good thing that my comment was whisked away to the eternal trash bin in the sky, as what I’d written may not have been all that wise or sensible to share. .. not saying that was true with your comment since I don’t know, but just saying I’ve had similar things happen to me. :)

      • Heather2

        Yes, Barbara, I had that thought too. :) in the end, I leave that with God.

  7. As I See It Only

    I was hoping for some advice about dealing with adult children who exhibit the hate of the abuser. Pray and ‘leave the light on’ are what I am hearing. Thanks to those that responded, confirming that it’s a long hard process of healing and not limited to the impressionable years. The best time to get out of an abusive marriage? Now!

  8. Both my kids (11 and 13 when I left their abusive father) went through times of anger with me. It was my son (the younger) who struggled with it more. He was actually the one I was mostly trying to protect. His father’s rage was aimed at him more often than anyone, and he was the one I had been the most worried about. It was hard, off and on, for many years. Sometimes he was angry at me for breaking up the family, sometimes he was angry at me for waiting so long to leave. Sometimes he was angry at his father but kind of took it out on me.

    I think sometimes abused children take out their anger on the non-abusive parent because that is the safe one. My son knows I love him, and that’s the most important thing. We aren’t as close as I’d like, but my biggest concern is that he continually turns toward God, the Source of mental and physical health. I pray for him every day, of course. We can all do that for our kids. (Mine are adults now.)

  9. LorenHaas

    Having led divorce recovery groups for a long time, I have seen this often. The parent that provides a safe relationship frequently has to endure unfair criticism from their children because no criticism is safe with the other parent. It is important to listen to what they have to say but focusing on the feeling they are expressing. Being the safe parent can be really hard but can lead to healthy relationship in the long run.

    • Thanks Loren
      When an experience observer/bystander recognizes this syndrome, victims feel affirmed and less ‘crazy’.

  10. Amy

    My boys were 17 and 14 when their father left our home five years ago after a 20 year abusive marriage. He had my oldest son so convinced that I had kicked him out and only wanted a divorce because I was having an affair, that I lost the relationship I’d had with my son. We are closer today and I think he is coming to see that his father has never changed and is a manipulating, destructive person to be around.
    My youngest always stayed close to me, although he saw his father on a regular basis after he walked out, but six months ago he finally cut all ties with his father after a really horrible, manipulative thing his father did to him. After that, my son and I had some very serious conversations about all that had happened over the years re: his father and the abuse he heaped on me and him and his brother.
    At one point I made a comment about how over the last five years I wanted so many times to tell him what his father was doing. He looked at me and simply said, “Mom, if you had said anything negative about him [his father] I would not have believed you and would have only been angry at you. I’m not stupid, I know how dad treated us all those years and how he is still the same today, but I wanted so much to just have a relationship with my father. And now I see that I will never have that.”

    So, when the children lash out at the non-abusive parent I believe it’s at least partly because, as Becky stated above, that they feel safe with that parent. And that’s how it was too for my boys during their growing up years. They could be open with me while they could never share their emotions or feelings with their father or he would blow up. And it was that way for me too…I could never be ‘real’ with my ex, we all just worked hard to keep the peace so he would not get upset. What a terrible way to live, and it was.

    Now that I’ve been remarried for the past two years to an amazing man, my boys are finally seeing what a healthy marriage looks like and are seeing their mom smile again. :)

  11. MicroGal

    I am learning so much as I make my exit plan. I can’t say it’s all candy and rainbows (hardly), but knowledge is power. I am growing so much.

    • Hi MicroGal, glad you are finding help here! Bless you, and welcome to the blog. :)

    • joepote01

      So much for that myth about divorce being “the easy way out,” huh? ;-)

      It’s not easy…but God will be with you each step of the way. He is our Redeemer and Deliverer!

      • Vicky

        Yes, even tonight (we are not separated yet) – a quick trip to the grocery store (for milk) turns into $100 to buy toys for the kids. He tries to buy their love, and discipline is very heavy-handed or non-existent. The kids are small (7, 5, and 3), and I wonder and worry about how all this will affect them. But staying is not an option. Not after years of him cheating and leading a double life.

      • joepote01

        Vicky – I understand…been there…

        Trust God…He is faithful!

        Blessings to you as you begin this next stage of your journey!

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