It’s in the media. It’s on so many episodes of crime shows. Toxic relationships turned into domestic abuse. Families are ripped apart by the grief of domestic violence. How do we protect and safeguard our kids from entering into these toxic relationships? It’s such a complex problem. Let’s break it down into some simple steps.
KIDS LEARN WHAT THEY LIVE
Kids and adults learn what they live and that includes harmful relationships. This includes being desensitized to emotional and verbal abuse, arguments and violent disputes. When I was in therapy during the early years of leaving my abusive domestic partner, the question I asked my therapist was “Why do I gravitate to abusive partners?” Her response was simply “It’s what’s familiar to you.” When children live in an environment with emotional, verbal, physical and substance abuse, this is what becomes familiar and normal to a child. Kids need stability and abusive conditions can’t provide this.
ADULTS AND KIDS NEED HEALTHY COMMUNICATION AND BOUNDARIES
In order to teach kids good healthy communication and healthy boundary setting, first we parents have to model this in our own actions and communications. This is probably the most difficult piece. As adults, we may never even realize we have unhealthy toxic, emotional and relational patterns of behavior until we have children and see how it begins to affect them.
In my own experience, I saw first hand how these problems affected the foster children during their teen years. I heard their stories, witnessed their pain, observed the disconnects with their caregivers. These experiences and training opened my eyes early on where kids were struggling. A small window of work in behavioral help for kids gave me a crash course in parenting my own children.
Then as I began identifying the signs of abuse in my own toxic relationship, and seeing how this could potentially damage my own children, I knew, without help, the cycle would only continue. Breaking cycles and patterns is difficult. Especially when you’re learning yourself to replace those toxic habits with unfamiliar healthy ones. It feels abnormal, awkward and requires patience, persistence and daily practice. It absolutely requires consistent mental health support.
HELPING KIDS CHOOSE HEALTHY FRIEND RELATIONSHIPS IS WITHIN THEIR POWER
Our first friends are our siblings and family members, so as we create new healthy relationship dynamics, our kids learn how they are treated as well as how they are to treat others. I stress the importance of healthy family dynamics within their own family system because it sets the practice for friendships.
Kids will encounter friend attractions that are compatible with their personalities. It’s important to have daily opportunities to allow kids to talk about their interactions with friends. What they like about their friends, how their friends treat them and others, and how they make them feel about themselves. Parents don’t get to choose their friends, only they have the power. We can get them talking, invite friends over to observe, and always support them to make good decisions about safe friends.
Life experience is teaching them about how to respond to bullying or mean words, or gossip in the early years. Asking them questions regarding discernment in the teen years when kids start exploring how to deal with peer pressure, substance abuse, dating, sex and all of the uncomfortable stuff is difficult. It’s even more important to keep lines of communication open and have dialogue that is free, clear and healthy with teens at this age. If kids begin to show unhealthy toxic patterns with relationships, this is when it often will show up. Mental health support and counseling intervention can help kids navigate during these important years.
WHAT IF I SUSPECT TOXIC ABUSE IN THE RELATIONSHIP EXISTS?
If you already have suspicions that a child or relationship is exhibiting toxic abuse it can actually be harmful to navigate on your own as a parent. Abuse cycles and relationships are complex so telling your child that someone is abusing them or they themselves are exhibiting abuse towards someone and that they need to get out isn’t helpful. It can actually cause more damage and make the victim isolate more. It’s important to keep lines of communication open.
Judgment free, safe, empathetic and open dialogue is the best practice to keep your kids close. If kids feel you don’t approve of their partner, they will only keep things hidden that are concerning. They will pump up the good things to gain approval. The abusers are many times also very unaware of their behaviors. They are usually operating on knee-jerk emotions from their own needs. Nobody ever leaves abusive partners or breaks the abuse cycles until they acknowledge it and they themselves are ready.
WHAT YOU CAN DO IS SHARE RESOURCES
Wonderful resources are available to assist parents with help on this subject. Futures Without Violence is one of many. Make sure your kids know abuse hotlines, and local shelters that are available. Hypothetical what if scenarios and the options to help get support can help equip kids so they can help themselves or even friends. Always encourage professional mental health support if kids seem to be struggling emotionally. Signs to look for can be weight loss, lack of self-care, irregular sleep, emotional swings, withdrawing from usual friends and activities, irregular routines, injuries that have unusual explanations, signs of digital abuse, financial abuse, excuses and explanations for partners behavior. Keep communicating and giving positive encouragement so kids know you will support their decisions no matter what and that they should always trust their instincts.
DOMESTIC ABUSE AND TOXIC RELATIONSHIP RESOURCES
Check out the new Netflix Series, MAID. It shows the spiraling effects of domestic abuse and gives an unsettling portrayal of how complex this reality can be for so many people involved. Having an awareness can help us all be sensitive to the signs, and how to be supportive to those in need of our help. Things we do and say to victims can help or be more harmful so being informed makes the difference. Like telling a victim, “just leave” can be overwhelming as it’s a daunting mountain to climb.
Donating to charitable nonprofits that provide support to victims and children is a great way to get involved. Local safe houses offer safe space, shelter, food, clothing, and basic needs for victims of domestic violence.
So much research is available in publications like Psychology Today, a great article “Why Don’t We Avoid Abusive Love Like the Plague?” where it highlights red flags of abuse in relationships. The traps that keep victims of abuse stuck and answers to common questions around these relationships.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent those of The We Spot, its employees, sponsors, or affiliates.