Children who live in environments where a parent is toxic and/or violent can internalize the traumatic experiences tha t take place. Children in these situations are often termed invisible victims. There is usually focus on the victim parent, but not on the children and the impact on them of being in a toxic environment.
Children across the country and globe witness violence between their parents in large scales, especially when a parent is in relationship with a narcissistic partner. Some effects that children display in these settings include more anxiety, depression, anger, temperament problems and lower self-esteem than children who are not exposed to abuse in the home (Edleson, 1999).
Have you seen these effects in your own children? Empirical evidence suggests that growing up in a household with violence can profoundly affect young people’s developmental progress (Martin, 2002; McIntosh, 2002).
In addition, growing up with a toxic background has a cumulative effect in adulthood, which could contribute to the cycle of violence (Cunningham & Baker, 2004; Levendosky & Graham-Bermann, 1998). Given these findings, it is important that you, as the parent who is dissolving the toxic relationship, be aware of these things, not only within yourself, but also with your children.
Stay Alert: What to Watch For
When you are involved with a toxic partner, or in the upheaval of the aftermath when you leave, it is difficult to be present and become a protector for your children. Because of this, they can develop a sense of learned helplessness, which may include experiences of feeling alone or needing to protect you. In these cases, they can feel loss of a sense of safety and protection due to role reversal. You and your children will also develop a heightened response to anticipated danger. The effects of trauma biochemically change the brain and it can become difficult to distinguish safety from danger. The amygdala becomes enlarged after continued experiences of trauma.
The amygdala releases high levels of cortisol, which is responsible for the fight, flight or freeze response. When cortisol is constantly present in the system, the body is continuously in a heightened state. You and your children are more hypervigilant and have a very sensitive startle response to loud noises and other events out of their norm.
These are symptoms of PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder). You not only need to practice relaxation and safety skills for yourself, but also for your children by doing your best to protect them when it comes to the toxic behaviors (mental, emotional, and verbal) of the other parent. Once you learn these skills yourself, it would be valuable for you to teach them to your children.
How Children Cope
Children in toxic environments may also display some maladaptive coping mechanisms, such as:
1) Normalizing the experience, which includes minimizing what is occurring due to the repeated experiences of the event and justifying what is taking place in order to deal with the trauma
2) Isolation from the lived experience by escaping to their rooms or a space that feels safe for them. As a result, they may be withdrawn from others who could support them.
3) They can also become desensitized or develop a “thick skin” where they become numb to what is going on. Desensitization is analogous to 3rd degree burns:. the trauma can cause so much damage that they begin to feel numb and may become disconnected and withdrawn.
What To Do
You must be cautious if you observe these behaviors. Try to process with your child what is going on for them, as well as having an alternative space for them to feel safe, such as a trusted family member or a close friend, so that they have an experience of what safety looks and feels like.
It is important for you to help your children learn about alternative approaches to resolving conflict, even when it is presently being witnessed. In violent and toxic situations, children learn how to handle conflict and how to manage their anger. If they grow up in an abusive environment they are more likely to engage in violent, abusive or manipulative behaviors.
You also need to help your children learn to distinguish when they are feeling safe and when they are in danger. They would need the ability to discern the difference. While in the abusive relationship and after, it is also imperative for you to create a safety plan and go over it with your children. Safety planning ensures that the children know what will happen, what they need to do and that they are safe should something violent occur.
Children often internalize their experiences and blame themselves for what they witness between their parents. It is critical for you to help your children understand that it is not their fault for the difficult experiences and violence that is occurring in the home. You also need to seek out help and guidance for yourself if you can do so. Many victims stay with their abusive partner for years before dissolving the relationship. This has a profound effect on the children and teaches them that this is the way relationships are supposed to be. If possible, place the children in therapy also. Early referral and treatment serves as a protective factor against the devastating consequences of violence exposure (Osofsky, 1995). Dispelling myths about family violence, clarifying responsibility for the violence and focusing on nonviolent conflict resolution should be included in therapy with youths exposed to violence.Long-term, in-depth therapy should be provided for children who were exposed to severe or repeated violence in the home (Flannery, 1998). When it relates to aiding the child and the relationship with the abusive parent, realize it is a source of both love and anger for them. They love the individual because it is their parent and they also have a sense of anger and fear as the abusive parent signifies danger and lack of feeling safe and protected. There is also an experience of loss of the abusive parent not being present. The abuser is not seen as a protector or hero, but more as a person that exemplifies danger to their well-being. It is imperative for you to validate those experiences for the child and to allow them to sit in their feelings.
Some Alternative Approaches to Resolving Conflict - Teach your children the difference between passive, aggressive and assertive communication.
- Help your children to know when they are feeling angry in their bodies (knots in stomach, balling up hands, short and fast paced breathing, etc.) -Teach your children to understand that it is okay to take a break should they feel themselves becoming angry and learn how to practice deep breathing (5 breaths inhale (tummy out), 5 breaths exhale (tummy in). -Teach your children grounding techniques such as making them aware of their 5 senses to aid them in calming down when they feel angry. Ask them what they see, hear, touch, taste and smell around them in the present moment. This can serve as a distraction from the anger.
Your Role As the parent, you are the one who must decipher what is healthy for yourself and your children, what is unhealthy and what would be best for the family. Ultimately, it is important for you and your children to get the healing and growth you need to move forward in a healthy and productive life. Often, you have no control over whether your children must spend time with a toxic parent who is no longer in your life. So it is imperative that you equip them with the eyes to understand what they are experiencing, the skills to know how to protect themselves and the love to know that they deserve to be treated with respect. This Mother’s Day, I hope you give yourself and your children the gift of a healthy mom, or at least one who is on the path to self-love, self-respect and safety for yourself and your children. The first step is to accept the importance of that and then to commit to creating it. Don’t have children? Or they are all grown up? As someone who has lived the experiences of a toxic relationship and is growing from them, you can play an invaluable role in the lives of your grandchildren or other children who have lived in a toxic household. And parents need your help too. Who can you teach? Who can you support that needs some assistance in helping their children overcome the effects of a toxic parent?
Cunningham, A., & Baker, L. (2004). What about me! Seeking to understand a child’s view of violence in the family. London, ON: Centre for Children & Families in the Justice System.
Edleson, J. L. (1999). Children’s witnessing of adult domestic violence. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 14, 839-870.
Levendosky, A. A., & Graham-Bermann, S. A. (1998). The moderating effects of parenting stress on children’s adjustment in woman-abusing families. Journal of Family Violence, 13(3), 383–397.
Martin, S. G. (2002). Children exposed to domestic violence: Psychological considerations for health care practitioners. Holistic Nursing Practice, 16, 7-15
McIntosh, J. E. (2002). Thought in the face of violence: A child’s need. Child Abuse and Neglect, 26, 229-241.
Osofsky, J. D. (1995). Children who witness domestic violence: The invisible victims. Society for Research in Child Development, 9, 1-20.