Navigating the Path to Recovery: Building a Secure and Compassionate Future for You and Your Child
Users of the Get Out Get Love (GOGL) programme often ask the question - how to support a child who has grown up in and around domestic abuse.
This article aims to briefly address this sensitive and crucial topic, offering insights and guidance to parents who have bravely escaped abusive situations.
The answer is often not what parents expect.
And to be clear.. this applies if your child is 5 or if your child is 35!
Understanding the Impact on Children
In the GOGL programme, we spend the first 10 hours or so developing your understanding of the psychological changes that happen in adults, in abusive relationships. The conclusion, if one can be made, is that the changes are to such an extent that we can lose the ability to see abuse and even mistake it for love.
Children who experience or witness domestic abuse undergo profound psychological and emotional development, that enables them to survive in this often chaotic and scary world.
The formative years of childhood, crucial for emotional and psychological development, are significantly impacted by the dynamics of an abusive household. Children may develop a heightened sense of fear, anxiety, and may struggle with trust and relationship building later in life. They also may struggle to recognise any of this as unusual, as it is their normal. They can have huge gaps in their memory of childhood and can feel compelled to please and be close to the abusive parent, as a survival strategy - that again feels like love - in fact, a version of love they have learned to accept and want in a world where it was ever present.
The psychological complexities of living in an abusive environment can be seen in the behaviour of children - including withdrawal, aggression, self-harm, rejection of the fleeing parent, risky behaviours and/or anxiety - to name a few. It's important to recognise these behaviours as potential signs of the trauma they have experienced and, like for you, can be supported to heal over time.
The Role of Attachment Theory in Healing
I'd like to introduce attachment theory - as it can be helpful both in understanding the past and in understanding a parent's role, supporting healing.
Attachment theory, developed by psychologist John Bowlby, emphasises the importance of a secure and stable relationship between a child and their caregiver. As you can imagine, the reality in an abusive relationship is the absence of this safety / security. Even if you strived for it as the victim, the household would have been unsafe and you (as the victim) were likely at times unavailable to create safety, as you may have been trying to survive yourself or just emotionally exhausted and unavailable. No guilt needed here, this is common and you have little choice in it.
In the context of recovering from domestic abuse, establishing a secure base is crucial for a child's healing process - and this is something you can work on.
A secure base provides a child with a sense of safety and predictability, essential in restoring trust and stability in their life. This stability allows the child to explore their environment, engage in learning, and develop healthy relationships, knowing they have a safe and supportive home to return to.
What do I mean by a secure base? I mean a consistent unconditional love, a consistent steer towards healthy interactions, the absence of scary drama, the ability to support a child to soothe their distress and the reliability on you (as the parent) to be able to provide this when needed.
Of course, to be able to provide this for your child - you have to be able to provide it for yourself. A concept that is challenging to a parent who is so desperate to help their child and so unused to putting themselves first!
Let me persuade you further....
The Parent's Journey to Recovery
For a parent, the journey towards recovery is not only about personal healing but also about becoming a source of stability and security for their child. Addressing your own recovery is vital in this process. It involves reaching a state of emotional regulation (control over how you feel) and self-worth, ensuring that patterns of abusive relationships do not recur with your ex and/or new partners.
Put another way - learning to soothe your own emotions, to be safe in your own life, to trust yourself and to understand how to avoid future abuse are central to your own recovery and are the essential learnings you need to pass on to your child, by being this - when they need this.
Critical to achieving this is getting a clear understanding of your own story - why did you love an abuser? why did you stay? why did you not see the extent of it? why was it so hard to leave? what changed in me as a response to the abuse? what happens after I leave - how to I recover?
Having a deep and empowering answer to all of these, is the most powerful tool in parenting, as they help you to anticipate and address your child's emotional and behavioural needs more effectively.
Developing Self-Compassion and Psychoeducation
Self-compassion is an integral part of the recovery process. It involves being kind and understanding towards yourself, acknowledging your struggles, and recognising that recovery is a journey of learning and self-care. Psychoeducation about your experiences allows you to understand the dynamics of domestic abuse and its impact on both you and your child (i.e. you need to know how abuse effected you both, as you are the recovery lead for you both).
Educating yourself about the psychological effects of abuse empowers you to break the cycle. It enables you to create a nurturing and supportive environment for your child, one that fosters resilience and emotional well-being.
Applying Your Recovery to Parenting
Your journey towards healing and understanding is not just for your benefit; it directly impacts your child's recovery. By developing a deep understanding of how abuse shapes psychology, you can provide more insightful support to your child.
It probably helps for me to frame this in reverse, as most survivors of abuse struggle to put themselves first. So here, use your love for your child to drive you... your journey towards healing and understanding is essential to support your child's recovery, and even the investment into your own healing journey is something you want to show your child.
In short, personal healing is how you get yourself in the right emotional, behavioural and recovery space - to create a secure base, to be the predictable and secure parent.
This approach creates in you an understanding of how to heal which helps in communicating with your child's school and other support services, ensuring they receive the comprehensive care they need - you can be sure most professionals don't really understand domestic abuse and how the impact shows in children (some are quite and shy, others are loud and disruptive - trauma can show in a million ways... ways you will recognise in your own child).
When responding to your child's behavioural and emotional challenges, your experience and recovery journey become a valuable resource.
You're better equipped to address these challenges with empathy and understanding - if you develop these for yourself first, providing the support your child needs to heal.
Responding to the 'Buts...'
As you read this article, you may feel that the situation you are in has more complexity than I realise. I often hear people respond to these ideas with...
But my child still sees my ex and so they are confused about what is true.
But my ex still abuses me or exerts control, through co-parenting.
But my ex is attacking me through the course.
But my child blames me.
But my child thinks my ex is an amazing parent.
For all of these, the rationale to work on your own recovery first remains the priority. This doesn't mean stopping care for your child or enduring the complexity of the current situation - it means that to meet the needs of this complex situation, you have to be in good form and feel secure in yourself.
The outside world can rarely ever be controlled, we can only strive to be the best version of ourselves to meet it. And this includes meeting the role of parenting a child, through their complexity.
Conclusion: Building a Foundation for Recovery
In conclusion, supporting a child who has grown up in and around domestic abuse requires a multi-toolkit approach. It starts with your own recovery, building a foundation of emotional regulation, self-worth, and understanding. This foundation is crucial in providing the secure base your child needs to heal and thrive.
Remember, self-recovery, self-compassion, and psychoeducation are not only beneficial for you; they are essential tools in your parenting journey. They enable you to support your child's recovery effectively, helping both of you move towards a brighter, more stable future.
(I realise some parents try to co-parent with an abusive ex, see links below for advice)
Bowlby, J. (1988). A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. Basic Books.