Understanding psychological abuse and how it affects parenting

By Anette Doren, family health educator, Marquette County Health Department

Domestic violence is a significant public health problem that can have devastating effects on our families and on our communities. Domestic violence is defined as a pattern of behavior that one person in a relationship uses to control the other. This abusive behavior can be physical, psychological, sexual or financial. The most severe cases are inevitably discovered. However, psychological abuse frequently goes undetected by authorities, family and friends, and even the victims themselves. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) 48.4 percent of women and 48.8 percent of men have experienced at least one psychologically aggressive behavior by an intimate partner. What is psychological abuse? Does your partner:

• Threaten to harm you or your children?

• Constantly swear and yell at you?

• Blame you when things go wrong?

• Demean you in public or private?

• Ignore, exclude or isolate you?

Rejection, ignoring, exploiting, isolating and threatening are all signs of psychological abuse. Although everyone is guilty of these behaviors once in a while, it is the repetition of the behavior, when the behavior is repeated consistently and frequently, that defines psychological abuse. According to the NCADV, victims of psychological abuse often experience depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, low self-esteem and difficulty trusting others. These issues can affect victims’ jobs, their relationships with family and friends, and most importantly, their ability to parent. Because psychological abuse does not leave physical marks, it is often overlooked. However, the NCADV reports that subtle psychological abuse is more harmful than either overt psychological abuse or direct aggression.

It is unfortunate that children are often exposed to parents who are in constant conflict. In many cases, even though the relationship might not be defined as abusive, it can still be detrimental to a child’s well-being. Seeing the two most important people in their life arguing and berating each other becomes normal, and defines for the child what relationships look like. This unhealthy view remains with them as they enter into adulthood.

Disrespect has become commonplace in our society. Social media, reality TV, and the nightly news is constantly exposing our young people to ugliness and hate. Children have front-row seats to the fighting and bickering in their own homes. Yelling, screaming and foul language has become the norm. Our young children witness this behavior. They remember the hateful words; they learn the profanity. It is no surprise that they begin to exhibit behaviors (bullying, cheating, lying) that we, as parents, consider rude and disrespectful. Children may often become depressed or anxious as a result of the turmoil within the family. Their ability to form healthy relationships as they mature is affected.

As adults, we need to understand that we are role models for our children. Conflicts and disagreements are inevitable and normal in any home. How it is addressed and resolved is what is important. As parents we need to be aware of how we treat other people, the comments we make and the language we use, particularly in front of our children. Yelling obscenities at the guy who cuts you off may be your way of blowing off steam, but your child is learning that it is OK to use those words whenever they get upset. Belittling your significant other may be your way of winning an argument, but your child is learning that it is OK to hurt the people you love.

Compassion, respect, responsibility and honesty are all values that we hope to instill in our children. In order to accomplish this, our actions must be consistent with our words.

Show respect for others. If you regularly put down other people, you are teaching your children other people are not important.

Be loyal. In today’s world, you can “unfriend” someone at the touch of a button. Be there for your family, for your friends and for your neighbors.

Model acceptance of others. Your children are watching you—and respecting some people and not others becomes quickly apparent to them.

Give them a voice. Although you are in charge, allow your children to make decisions when appropriate. Choosing what shirt to wear or what cereal to have for breakfast might seem insignificant, but you are teaching your children that they have the right to make decisions in a relationship.

Monitor television viewing and internet use. You cannot shelter your children from the outside world, but being aware of what they are watching and having a conversation about unacceptable behavior on the screen is another way to instill values.

Admit when you have done something wrong. Everyone slips up now and again. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge your mistakes. It is just as important to hold your children accountable for their mistakes. This is how they learn.

This October, let us honor National Domestic Violence Awareness Month by promoting peace, respect and kindness in our own families. Let us lead by example, so our children will learn that communication, trust and equality are essential in establishing and maintaining healthy relationships and families.


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