Parents who’ve managed to extricate themselves from an abusive relationship often wonder what they need to do to ensure that their children will survive the ordeal in an emotionally healthy manner and not go on to repeat the irresponsible behaviors and abusive conduct they witnessed growing up. And while there’s no simple, reliable “formula” for preventing the things we fear most from happening, it’s crucial that abuse survivors come to a firm understanding and acceptance about the kinds of things over which they do and don’t have influence or power.
Very early in my work with survivors of relational abuse I learned some things that shed welcome new light on all the research findings on depression. And when I published my first book, In Sheep’s Clothing [Affiliate link], I made sure to include what I had come to believe was the behavioral “formula” for depression. Focusing attention and investing time and energy where you don’t have power, I realized, is a sure pathway to frustration, anger, feelings of helplessness, and eventually, depression. Contrarily, focusing on what you have power over — namely, your own decisions and actions — and investing your time and energy in those things is the “formula” for personal empowerment and joy. Doing so also requires that you “let go” of the possible outcomes of your actions, and of people, places, and things you can’t possibly control. How crucial this realization would prove to be became all too clear in the many subsequent years I worked to help empower abuse survivors.
No one functions effectively when depressed. So, when it comes to parenting, especially the task of guiding those who’ve already experienced more than their fair share of trauma toward a better way of living, it’s absolutely essential to invest all your energy only where you have power. Naturally, you’ll be tempted to focus on your ex-spouse and his/her possible retaliatory actions, manipulations, etc. And out of concern for your children you’ll be tempted to try and control every outcome with respect to their behavior. But it’s absolutely crucial that you take to heart and accept these fundamental principles:
You ultimately have the most power over your own choices and behavior. You might be awash in what appears a sea of powerlessness, but you always retain the power to choose. This even includes power over the kinds of thoughts you entertain. And when you get right down to it, your thoughts can only be of two basic types: secure and insecure. While it might be really difficult at times, you always have the power to choose the secure thought over an insecure one. So, when you find yourself thinking such things as “I’ll never make it on my own, “ or “My kids will never be the same,” or “My ex will turn them all against me,” you can change those thoughts to secure ones like “I am a person of worth and capability,” and “I still have the power to influence and nurture relationships with my children.” Even if you can’t make yourself believe the more secure things you tell yourself in your heart, you still have the power to change your thoughts. And in time, thinking more securely will come more naturally and sincerely (as the old saying goes, you can “fake it until you make it”).
Because you always have the power to act, the most important aspect of empowering your life is to do something — anything differently from what you might have done before out of fear or insecurity. Take action, that’s the key. And don’t take action in anticipation of the outcome. You don’t have power over outcomes — that’s in God’s hands. But you always have the power to do. And when you afford appropriate recognition to your choices and act in good faith and in accordance with your principles, and most importantly of all, when you reinforce yourself (give yourself an internal pat-on-the-back for doing the right thing), you become steadily stronger. Only a strong, confident, principled person, can parent a child looking for direction effectively.
Although you can’t possibly have power over outcomes, or over other people, places, and things, you have an incredible power to influence. You have not only the power but also the duty to exemplify and model healthy, appropriate, principled behavior to your children. Whether you think your example is having an effect or not, make no mistake, your children will be watching and observing your conduct. That doesn’t mean your children will always be in a mental or emotional place to fully attend to and take to heart the example you set before them, or that they’re using the lessons you try to teach them to shape their own character, but they’re watching nonetheless and taking mental notes. You don’t have the responsibility nor do you have the power to affect the outcomes you desire. Still, you’re obliged to set the example and to advance the principles in which you truly believe. God, in his own time, takes care of the rest.
You also have the power, right and responsibility to set reasonable expectations for the kinds of behaviors you desire from others. In other words, it’s up to you to set and enforce the minimum character standards a person must display to have an intimate relationship with you. And the character standards you expect of them should be the same ones you’re willing and determined to exemplify yourself. You also have the power to provide encouragement and reinforcement when such standards are upheld and to show disapproval and withdraw support when the standards are not upheld.
You have the right and responsibility to establish and enforce reasonable limits and boundaries, especially when it comes to the behavior of your children and your ex. And it’s important to make sure that when it comes to issues of discipline with those you love, that it’s never about them or your regard for them, but purely about their behavior and what’s acceptable or not acceptable in the eyes of the Lord. There’s a real “art” to doing this well. Being kind, loving, open to forgiveness, etc., while firmly standing on principle and making behavioral guidelines clear is a real challenge that requires both tact and practice to eventually become a skill.
Remember that you have no power over the nature and quality of the relationship your children will have with your ex. And it’s extremely counterproductive to carry out a covert war against your abusive ex through your children. It will only demonize you in their eyes and invite them to over-idealize their character-deficient other parent. Instead, focus intently on the nature of your own relationship with them. As they grow and mature, God willing, they’ll come to increased awareness about the differences in your character and your ex’s, as well as the difference such character qualities make in a relationship. Should they come to truly appreciate those differences, you will likely gain a level of quality in your relationship with them that you never had before. And if, for some reasons pertaining to their own character issues, they never come to such awareness, you will have lost very little.
I once counseled a woman who’d suffered for years in an emotionally abusive relationship. She had two teenage daughters, the older of whom had always been fairly close to her father and shared several of his personality traits. This woman was incensed that neither of her daughters could see their father for the defective character she knew he really was. She also was deeply hurt that they didn’t seem to appreciate her or the hell she went through during the marriage, trying to hold things together and mostly on their behalf. She was determined to make them realize that she was the good person, worthy of their love and respect, and that he was the bad guy, whom they should have nothing to do with. And she seized every opportunity to point out his shortcomings, failures, and antics. She even gave the girls a copy of my book Character Disturbance [Affiliate link], having underlined all the portions she believed applied to her ex. The girls’ father, on the other hand, was a charmer. So it wasn’t long before both girls came to see their mother as a vindictive, bitter woman and started increasingly distancing themselves from her.
This woman was not very happy when I challenged her to let the issues that existed between her and her ex remain between them alone and to focus both her attention and her passion on nurturing a more positive and intimate relationship with her daughters. Nor was she happy with the thought that she could only control her part in the process. She was always complaining: “I did what you suggested but it didn’t change anything.” She was definitely not comfortable of doing the right thing simply because it’s the right thing and not because it comes with a guarantee of the results you desire. But somehow she made the leap of faith and found the courage to persist. And gradually, she and her younger daughter got to know each other better than they ever had. It took longer for a healthy relationship to develop with the older daughter. But in time, both girls came not only to see their parents but also the principles upon which they operated with much clearer eyes. And the woman found herself having the kind of family she’d always yearned for but which had long eluded her. She also learned some interesting things about herself along the way and what made her vulnerable to making some poor decisions with respect to relationships. And in the end, she came to a much healthier sense of self – a self that would never again enter or stay in a relationship devoid of mutual respect.
For a list of Dr Simon’s other posts on this blog and his books and other internet writings, click here.
18 thoughts on “Parenting after Separating from Your Abusive Ex — by Dr George Simon Jr”
Reblogged this on Hope for Survivors of Abuse [This link is broken and we were unable to find a copy in the Internet Archive. Editors.].
Thanks so much for sharing this with us. It is so easy to get wrapped up in figuring out how to protect our kids from their other parent and from learning to “love” in the way he models. This was one of the main reasons that i stayed with him as long as i did, attemping to protect them. I am only just beginning to trust that as I become more and more my confident true self they will seek God in becoming who they truly are too. Your post is a great encouragement right now. God bless you for how you lift up and encourage us!
“…the behavioral ‘formula’ for depression. Focusing attention and investing time and energy where you don’t have power, I realized, is a sure pathway to frustration, anger, feelings of helplessness, and eventually, depression.”
Now there is some real wisdom for sure. I have read someplace that we spend (waste) 80% of our time and energy on maybe 5-10% of all the people in our lives. They are the squeaky wheels, the problems…and the ones who never change. A waste of energy indeed trying to change that which we have no power to change.
“…it’s crucial that abuse survivors come to a firm understanding and acceptance about the kinds of things over which they do and don’t have influence or power.”
Yes! It is SO important to focus energy on things over which we have control and to simply trust God with the rest.
While going thru divorce, as well as single parenting and step-parenting in the years since, I have found myself frequently and fervently praying “The Serenity Prayer,” with special emphasis on “…the wisdom to know the difference.”
God is faithful!
Ya I may not be in a situation right now that reflects the parenting issues, BUT I went through them for years, towing the very delicate balance of trying to co-parent with an abuser. In my case it just was NOT possible unless I sacrificed my children along with myself.
Anon gave me some great insight on affliction, and Im slowly understanding that the affliction I have been through, and currently am experiencing is in fact somethiing I can stand against. I do have the power not to waste my thoughts on evil, I can CHOSE to pick up Gods armor and take a stand, HE does give me the power to do so. All along, I did feel powerless to my endless stresses, I just thought I had to move and breathe through them, and as long as I was taking a breathe I thought I was doing all I could, because that is HOW it FEELS. Now I understand that I CAN reign my thoughts in, to where God is. I mean all along if I had the strength to endure everything we have been through in my flesh, all the torture, all the sickening oppression, why would I not think that God himself who is in me, why would I not KNOW that He had the power over my spirit? I “feel” crushed, yet I am not? I “feel” broken, yet I am not? I “feel” powerless yet I am not? I have an ally that cannot be beat! The MIW has allys that are fools.
I still “FEEL” sick, I sitll have a noodle for a brain, and I am on a continual wave of stress……but ultimately God uses all that madness inside of me for His purpose of fullfilling our prayers…..Once I am free, guess what? Guess who will be paying you all a visit?
So get all the cookies baked (I prefer chocolate chippers, just FYI) and get those Lattes ready!!
oxox thanks for this. I need to contsantly be reminded of where my focus NEEDS to be. Maybe I should use some of that focus on learning how to spell too!
Oh Memphis, I am so glad that helped you! Now, here is another thing you can do. Get some note cards. They make them on nice spiral binders now or with a large round clip to hold them together. Get your Bible and start writing down verses that will help you stay steady. When the fiery darts come, read them out loud if you have to. Memorize Psalm 25. I love verse 16 of that Psalm. It says, “turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted”. Everyone on this blog has at one time or another, been lonely and afflicted. 😦
Well, I wrote all of that and don’t even know if I am the Anon that you are speaking of! Oh well.
I just read “In Sheep’s Clothing” last week. Out of the entire book, the paragraph about how a victim becomes depressed was what jumped out at me the most. It described me perfectly! Just reading it there in black and white has done a great deal to help me become stronger. Thank you so much for your work!
“Now there is some real wisdom for sure. I have read someplace that we spend (waste) 80% of our time and energy on maybe 5-10% of all the people in our lives. They are the squeaky wheels, the problems…and the ones who never change. A waste of energy indeed trying to change that which we have no power to change.”
Very true words! Wonderful post, thanks!
this is excellent thank you!
the bits about depression…I noticed that when I focused on my ex and my kids spending half the summer with him, I felt so depressed I was almost completely non-functional. When I forced myself to stop thinking about it and focus on what I was doing with my time, it helped. I have also witnessed a woman just like what you describe – her motivation in doing the right thing is just to get results in her children….so it’s frustrating and she’s angry all the time. This has been a good lesson for me to FOCUS on my own behavior no matter what my children and ex are doing. many people have told me — just do the right thing because kids are smart and they figure out things in the end. You don’t have to force it. Just be yourself.
I think this truth
Reblogged this on Women. Healing. Violence. [Internet Archive link].
[…] Parenting after Separating from Your Abusive Ex — by Dr George Simon Jr […]
This was really good! There are lots of applications for this.
Thanks Dr. Simon! 🙂
Thank you for your great post. I am a counselor, also. I will always remember my first case in which there had been domestic violence. I was working with the two children. One of them was only five years old. He boasted, “When I am with my Dad on the week-ends, we shoot guns.” As a concerned counselor, I warned the boys’ mother. She wisely said, “I have to realize I can’t control what happens when my boys are with their father. I just have to entrust them to God.” After the fear and anger between the two “adults” subsided, the boys grew up to be healthy members of society as far as I have been told.
I feel this is very good. Although, my question pertains to the children themselves and I would appreciate any feedback. What if the other parent has or is abusing the child? And how can it be dealt with appropriately?
I don’t know. If it is physical or sexual you HAVE to report it or you could lose custody of your kids. right now my ex-idiot is emotionally and psychologically abusing my two that see him and hasn’t crossed the line to sexual abuse with my daughter but I see it looming. I just have to pray. I am doing what I can to set up a safe place for her but it’s difficult, you can’t accuse for might happens( Which I am thankful because he does accuse me of all sorts of falsehoods but it is also a really hard place to be in) I pray this new counselor I am going to see can give me the right words to share/ not share with my daughter to protect her.
Dear Still Scared, Dr Simon said
I think that making a report to the authorities if children are in danger (e.g. when the ex is sexually abusing a child, or showing signs of grooming the child and working up to sexually abusing them) is completely the right thing to do. Taking that action is something within our power. Dr Simon was encouraging us not to focus on things we have no power over. But we DO have the power to report child endangerment to the proper authorities. And taking such an action is right and proper.
I am sure Dr Simon would endorse the act of a victim-survivor who made such a report.
Once the report is made, you cannot absolutely control what the authorities will do with that report (the outcome) but if you believe they are being unprofessional or not following the legislation and policies they are supposed to follow, you can try through whatever legal and political channels you have to get them to do what they ought to be doing.
When Dr Simon said:
I don’t think Dr Simon was meaning that we should turn a blind eye when the ex is abusing the children, especially when that abuse falls into a category where the State can and should intervene to stop the abuse and protect the child. If you reported such a situation to the authorities, that would not be ‘carrying out a covert war against your abusive ex through your children.’ It would be doing what was in your power to protect your children from harm.
I have been in similar circumstances to you, SS, when the abusive ex had my daughter wrapped round his little finger. She thought he was a much nicer parent than me, he had taught her to despise me and to be loyal to him, so that even while he was amping up his abuse of her and I was seeing more and more signs of her being in imminent danger, she did not reject him, she did not see him as a bad or dangerous person.
I reported my fears to the authorities. And when it came to the crunch they took action.
The abusive ex had set up the situation so that when I sought to protect my daughter, she (in part of her mind) saw me as her antagonist, because (in that part of her mind) she was so allied with her father. But after she was protected and no longer in contact with him, she came to see that I had not been her antagonist and that I had not been carrying out a covert war through her against her father, I had only been trying to protect her all along.
Thank you sir, that was very helpful and helps me to put things into place.
At Dr Simon’s post on his own blog When your character disordered ex defames and makes trouble for you [Internet Archive link] I put this query [Internet Archive link] to him:—
Sometimes it is possible to ask the courts to grant you a protection order against the person who has been abusing you. Would you construe this as the victim trying to control the abuser’s conduct? Is it the right or good thing for a victim to do? Or is it focusing too much on trying to control the behavior of the character disturbed person?
Dr Simon has replied to me by email as follows
Protection Orders, Why Safety Planning is So Important: