Leaving the past behind: Healing yourself and your kids
Healing after escaping a violent situation isn't easy — but it's necessary. How can you help your children process what happened and move ahead?
When Alice Harmon, the teen program coordinator for FOCUS Ministries, Inc., was married, she was deprived of sleep, physically and verbally abused and held against her will. Her husband made her believe that if she left, she'd lose her kids too. "I would never know how long it might be before the escalation started. It could be months, but the angry and abusive behavior always returned," says Harmon, a mother of two.
The first step toward freedom from domestic violence is getting away from the abuser. Women's shelters, friends and family can help. Once away from the volatile and dangerous situation, it's time to get help.
"Moms need to heal themselves before they can heal their kids. That is, moms need to separate themselves and their kids from their abusive father. This may mean going to a shelter if the man won't leave voluntarily," says Carole Lieberman M.D., Beverly Hills psychiatrist on the Clinical Faculty of UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute.
Harmon turned to therapy before leaving her abusive husband, seeking help for the intense depression she experienced as a result of the abuse. "After each session, I would assure him I did not talk about him. He would grill me for details, expecting me to recite word for word everything I had talked about in my sessions. He threatened me that if I talked about the abuse they'd take my children away," says Harmon. She says it took months to open up about the abuse in therapy.
Over time, Harmon says that the therapy empowered her. "I recognized I was capable of supporting the boys. I realized letting go of the dream of the house, the car, and the two-point-two kids did not mean my life was over. Most of all I began to comprehend the impact the environment we were living in was having on my children," says Harmon.
Harmon left her husband after seeing how the abuse was impacting her children. "Upon watching my son be reduced to tears, curled up in a fetal position, hiding in a coat closet at school, my eyes finally opened to the effect. He had only forgotten his backpack," says Harmon. She and her kids left the next day.
Leaving is just the beginning of the journey to healing though. "Once Mom and kids are safe, they need to be in therapy themselves," says Lieberman.
For Harmon's eldest son, therapy helped. "When we left, my oldest son, who was only 5 at the time, was hitting himself and expressing suicidal thoughts. I put him in counseling immediately," says Harmon. "Through the time in the shelter, counseling and working with the social worker at his school, he has grown immensely. He now knows how to recognize and show emotion, and he no longer hurts himself. We still work through anger issues and fear and shame of showing weakness as a boy. He continues to see a counselor and work with the psychologist at school."
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. If you (or someone you know) are a victim of domestic violence, help is out there. Not sure where to start? You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 for help or information.