When I was younger, I was involved with a violent man. Our relationship started out just like every other relationship I’d ever been in, and I didn’t suspect anything was wrong until it was too late for me to safely get out. Sometimes I wonder if I would have seen the danger sooner if I’d been aware of all the different ways abuse can look. Would I have known the danger I was in from the start if someone had told me their story?
Now that I’m a mother to three small children I can’t help but wonder if I’m doing them a disservice by keeping mine to myself. I imagine lots of survivors find themselves walking that same tightrope, torn between wanting to shield our children from the horrors in the world and wanting to tell them about our experiences so that they’ll have the tools to recognize some of the early warning signs for themselves.
Is there a right age to start?
My children are still very young, so I wasn’t sure how to go about beginning a conversation with them (or if it was even the right thing to do) — which is why I reached out to Jennifer Kelman, LCSW and parenting expert JustAnswer therapist. According to Kelman, there is such a thing as oversharing when it comes to telling our children about traumatic experiences in our past.
She warns parents like me against sharing with kids who are too young (or even older teens who may be too emotionally immature to hear the news) because there’s a risk of “fragmenting” them. Kelman uses the phrase in a clinical sense to describe the act of forcing a child to take on the role of protector or putting them into a role where they feel like they have to rescue their mom or dad. “You never want to parentify the child where they slip into the role of caretaker,” she says, adding that it’s only natural for a child to want to make sure their parent is okay after hearing that something so horrible happened to them.
How to know when you’re ready to share.
Before you begin the conversation, Dr. Bethany Cook, Clinical Psychologist, Health Service Psychologist, Adjunct Professor, a Board Certified Music Therapist says that you should ask yourself a few questions about what they hope to accomplish by sharing their story, like:
- What information do you want to share?
- Why do you want to share it?
- Why do you feel your child will benefit from knowing this right now at their current developmental stage?
- Do you feel your child will be able to understand the “gist” of what you’re saying and not get lost in the concrete details of events?
- Am I able to talk about this topic and maintain my emotionality or will I become overwhelmed?
- Will I be OK answering questions they have?
- Will this potentially impact another relationship they have (the other parent, extended family, etcetera)?
- How will you manage any potential fallout from this?
- What foundation of general information have I taught my kid prior to my personal experience?
If you have solid answers for all those questions and are confident in your child’s ability to hear this information, Dr. Cook says you might be ready to share.
Telling your story in a way that will help your kids.
As parents, we never want to get it wrong when it comes to our kids, which is why Kelman says it’s important that we’re careful with how we choose to share this information. She suggests doing it “very gingerly, very slowly, [and in] soundbytes.”
Kelman compares the conversation to that of a cookie, saying you shouldn’t try to feed your child the entire thing but instead offer a crumb when the time is right. As I talked to Kelman about those crumbs she shared just how tricky to know just when they’re ready. “You have to sort of look at your [kid] and decide whether they can handle this,” she says, adding that even at 15 or 16 they may still be too young to hear about what happened to their parent.
What if you’re seeing worrying signs in your child’s relationship?
Of course, if you think your child is heading down a dangerous path in their own relationship, Kelman says you may start to reconsider whether the time is right to share what you know. She says that may be a sign the time is right to offer up a small “soundbyte” by letting your child know that you’re seeing some red flags. Just be ready with a response when your kid asks you why you think you know what you’re talking about.
She suggests clearly stating that while you’re not going to fully divulge the details, you do want them to understand that you know what you’re talking about because you once found yourself in a relationship like that. You can explain to them how “the longer you stay in it, the more difficult it is to get out and the more dangerous it is for you emotionally and possibly physically,” Kelman continues, adding that you’ll need to follow their lead when deciding whether to offer more crumbs or to leave your explanation at that.
You’re likely already having these conversations with your kids.
All of this may sound like an overwhelming task, but whether you realize it or not, you’ve already laid the groundwork for this conversation, according to Dr. Cook. “You honestly start teaching your children from the time they are born about relationships, boundaries and/or mental health related topics like domestic violence,” she says. We do this in small ways like when we decide whether to force our young children to hug and kiss relatives (consent), and by listening when they say “no” (boundaries).
“You are laying the foundation for this conversation from day one,” Dr. Cook says. “Honestly, your children may be adults by the time they hear all the layers to your story. You share what you need, when you need, and in ways they can understand using concrete terms. This conversation starts young and continues as they grow.”
What if you get it wrong?
We’re all bound to make some missteps as parents, both when talking about something as traumatic as surviving domestic violence and during more mundane parenting moments, but Kelman insists that doesn’t have to be the end of your story. “[You’re going to] mess it up, whatever that means, an interaction, a moment, a missed moment,” she says — adding that the good thing is, we always have the ability to go back and revisit conversations with our kids.
Kelman says this will teach them that they also have the ability to be “reflective after tough moments in life” and try again. “It’s not about the tough moments per se, it’s about how we deal with them and what kind of self-reflection we do. That’s really where the work and the wealth of growth is.”
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