Code Word Safety — a way to handle some dilemmas kids have on visitation
Sharing custody with an abuser can be such a nightmare. Too often there is undermining, overt or subtle threats, silence that is always pregnant with fear and the unspoken understanding that nothing is as it seems. Living with this means you and your children have to continually find ways to stay safe; to stay one step ahead and MOST importantly, to band together and build trust between yourselves.
I had a situation come up recently that required this. How do you handle it when you’re on the phone with your child, while they are in the custody of your abuser, and you ask what you think is an innocent question, but that question, if your child were to answer honestly, would get him in serious trouble with the abuser? He feels forced to lie to you to keep from getting in trouble with the abuser on one hand, or he feels forced to tell you the truth and suffer consequences from the abuser on the other.
The bottom line is you are the safe one for your child and the choice then is really already made. You child knows you won’t hurt him and he is hoping you’ll understand why he had to lie. And you do. But what if you could find a way to both keep him safe and not force him to lie, because after all, we want to teach our kids good character, true?
So in this situation we were in, I asked my child what I thought was an innocent question and he lied. I found out later, in passing conversation with my other child, that he had in fact lied. I couldn’t blame him at all for that. He was staying safe, which is what I want for him. But I was still worried about the lying and the desperate place I had inadvertently put him in. I talked with someone I trust about it and that person suggested to me to give my children a code word. They could use this word any time I or my husband asked them a question that they couldn’t safely answer.
I immediately got to thinking about the possibilities with this. It would have to be a word or phrase that the kids could remember but innocuous enough that my ex wouldn’t pick up on it if they used it. It needed to be something my kids could easily work into a conversation, but would really only use it as a code at the same time. I had to think long and hard to come up with one that worked.
But it did. It worked so well. We taught and reinforced the code with the kids when they were with us, and the next time they had to visit their father, one of the children was already using it successfully. The abuser had no idea of the code.
So, now we have a phrase that has the power to free my children from an impossible choice, warn me of something serious going on for them, and bring us together in a small but significant way in the process. It makes my kids feel secure, even when I can’t be with them. This is because they aren’t forced into a terrible choice and I have found that it helps us feel just a little less far apart. It builds their trust and their hope. It’s a win on all sides. Our code is a phrase that is fun and transitions into a new topic of conversation for the kids in a casual way. That is what has worked for us.
What are some of the ways you keep your kids safe and stay one step ahead of the abuser in your life?