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Surviving the Aftermath of Abuse as a Single Parent

By MaryBeth Koenes

Living in an abusive home will change the way a person sees the world and stands in it. Surviving domestic violence isn’t just about getting out of the abusive relationship or leaving a toxic environment–-it’s much more complex. Add children to that mix and now we’re really juggling a basket full of delicate china. 

Parenting doesn’t come with a manual and it certainly isn’t predictable. Before we become parents, I guarantee none of us ever thought, “So, I will have two boys and one girl and their dad might be abusive and scream and throw things and occasionally hit me, so in that case, I’ll have to leave and start over…” Um, no. When we imagined being parents or as we prepared for our little one to come into the world, we might have thought about how we will keep them safe or all the ways we will love them. Some parents never thought they’d even be a parent, so adding the responsibility of another human life to the weight of figuring out how to leave and heal from an abusive situation safely is enough to make anyone feel like they’re losing their mind.

Regardless of how we came into our story of parenting within the wounds of domestic violence, this remains true: Surviving the aftermath of domestic violence as a single parent takes an extraordinary amount of courage

Some are attempting to co-parent with their abusers which triggers constant anxiety and keeps them spinning in the chaos of toxic interactions with them. Others are all alone with no financial support, no family involvement, and no help in sight. And there are those still finding it nearly impossible to manage the damage that occurred as victims of abuse. The effects of the abuse can zap our self-esteem, our mental stability, and our ability to begin again, nevermind trying to figure out how to take care of our children alone, too! Whatever the single-parent dynamic may be, we’re all just trying to tackle the never-ending to-do list, like school, chores, emotional needs, and the unexpected emergencies that pop up.

Being a single parent is challenging, that’s a given. But raising children alone while working through the cluster of side-effects from domestic violence in our own lives and our children’s is asking a lot from even the strongest of humans. So, where’s the hope? What’s the answer? How do we do it?!

Of course, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula for parenting past abuse, but there are some sure-fire tools we can all keep handy, tweaking along the way to help us cope with the daunting uncertainty of raising kids alone.

Here are five tips to help survivors who are solo-parenting:

  1. Don’t compare yourself. 

You are human. You are not a superhero (although it’s completely acceptable to embrace those days/moments when you feel you are slaying the game and taking names)! Even if other people have kids your kids’ age, you are the only one who has walked in your shoes or lived in your story. You do your best, but the goal is never perfection and it sure as hell isn’t looking like “all the other parents.” Don’t ever forget the fire you’ve already walked yourself and your kids out of by choosing to parent alone instead of with your abuser. Other people don’t know your battles and that’s okay, you know you’ve already been to hell and back and you got your kid to school before the day was over. Sometimes that’s all you can do. 

Even if you didn’t choose to leave your abuser (maybe they died or were incarcerated), you’re raising them alone now. You can approach your situation as a choice. Eckhart Tolle says, “Accept what is as if you had chosen it yourself.” This tiny mental shift can change the game and energize you to live more powerfully in your current circumstance.

2. Every day is a fresh start with opportunities to choose YOU. 

You may not have any answers or know your next move, but you always have choices. Sometimes they’re two terrible choices (like, do I stay and continue to be abused or leave and split up our family), but they are still choices. When you can recognize the choices that are in your best interest and your children’s best interest and you begin to take small steps towards those options, you will start feeling more confident. Take a deep breath. If today was an absolute failure, accept it for what it was–a (temporary) lesson on what NOT to do–and allow tomorrow to bring another round of opportunities for you to choose YOU. 

Remember that sometimes choosing you means giving yourself the actual time and space to process your own trauma and heal your heart. You now officially have permission to pursue self-healing, if you so choose. If you’re looking for a starting point, I recommend watching Terri Cole’s YouTube Channel or listening to her Podcast.

3. You don’t have to have it all figured out.

You really don’t. You don’t have to have the job AND be at all the kids’ events. You don’t have to make dinner every night AND process all of your children’s emotions. You don’t have to keep house AND have your kid in every sport they want to be in. You also don’t have to know what’s going to happen next school year or next month or for dinner tonight. Guess what? In not doing it all and having it all figured out, you’re actually teaching your kids what it means to be human. We will always have to say “no” to some things. That’s life. We will never be certain of what tomorrow brings. So when the other parent isn’t around, what can you do? You can show your kids that it’s okay to fumble through major life transitions, learn along the way, and find new tools when you recognize your need for them in certain areas. Imagine that–-our kids growing up not thinking they have to be perfect. Dare I say our kids actually have an opportunity to be more empathetic and capable of handling life’s twists and turns after watching their single parent run amuck and survive it all instead of having life come easy or never seeing their parent fail? I guess we’ll find out in a few years!

4. It won’t be like this forever.

It feels like it’ll never change, but it will. Look at where you were one, five, or ten years ago. Have you changed since then? Have your circumstances changed? Even if things have gotten worse over the years, imagine how much power you have to deliberately change things for the better moving forward. So give what you have today–-even if that’s a hug with a few silent tears for your babies. It’s enough for today. Tomorrow you will take one more next right step forward and make choices or seek help or find new tools to tackle what has become your normal. 

Surviving domestic violence goes far beyond escaping the grip of your abuser. You will be unveiling new layers of healing and freedom for the rest of your life (this is good news, by the way, because it means it won’t be like this forever)! And you get to lead your kids into that healing too. Teach them how to pave a path to new dreams, new hope, and a new life when Plan A turned out to be a disaster.

Believing there is possibility for something greater is hope. Allow yourself to believe you can have more, and you’ll teach your children how to have hope even when life looks dreary. If you’d like more ideas on conscious parenting, check out my YouTube Channel or Podcast.

5. Have your own back.

This is the tip that will lead you into all that self-discovery, self-esteem, and self-love stuff. If ever you were a victim, I know you longed for someone to have your back and stick up for you when you didn’t have the courage to do it yourself. We all did. It’s the best feeling ever when a parent, sibling, spouse, friend, or even a stranger steps in to protect you when trouble is coming. Did you know you can learn to do this for yourself too? When you make choices for your best interest, set boundaries that show others how they can treat you, and follow through with commitments to yourself, you start building trust with yourself. YOU become a dependable, safe place to hide when you’re scared, to fall apart when you’re overwhelmed, and to step up when action needs to be taken. “Having your own back” looks like not staying silent when someone disrespects you. It looks like setting a boundary when someone intrudes on your sense of safety. It looks like not allowing people who don’t treat you well to share time, space, or energy with you anymore. These are just a few examples of how you can start sticking up for yourself. 

The more you do it, the easier it will be and the bigger your self-esteem will grow. If you want to learn more about boundaries and having your own back, check out my favorite Podcaster, Instagrammer, and writer, Mark Groves.

No matter what your single-parenting/healing-from-abuse story looks like, remember that you are not alone and you are not required to be perfect. Give yourself the grace to learn as you go and make mistakes along the way. As Glennon Doyle says in her book, Untamed, “If you are uncomfortable–-in deep pain, angry, yearning, confused–you don’t have a problem, you have a life. Being human is not hard because you’re doing it wrong, it’s hard because you’re doing it right. You will never change the fact that being human is hard, so you must change your idea that it was ever supposed to be easy.”

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, there is help. You can visit the Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence website at www.breakthesilencedv.org or chat with one of our helpline advocates at 855-287-1777.

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Share Your Story

Sharing our stories can be incredibly empowering while also helping others connect with survivors who have similar experiences. If you are inspired to share your story with us, submit here. You can choose to remain anonymous.

You can also donate to BTSADV here.

What Does It Mean to be Trauma-Informed?

By Jessica M. Corvo

“It’s wonderful to be loved, but it’s profound to be understood.” -Ellen Degeneres

Trauma can test our limits in every single capacity. It can make us or break us. It can make us better or bitter. Challenges can be visible or invisible. Trauma can affect our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health.

An essential part of recovery is validating an experience. Indifferent to whether or not the experience makes sense, victims of trauma seek survivors to validate what they went through. “Me too” are the most bittersweet words to hear. My heart hurts to know another human being has experienced trauma while at the same time, it is comforting to know I am not alone. 

Experience is the best teacher because it helps people connect on deeper levels.   

What is trauma?

Trauma is an emotional response to an unforeseen event. The three main types of trauma are acute, chronic or complex. Acute trauma is a single incident such as an accident, rape or natural disaster. Chronic trauma is repeated or prolonged incidents such as domestic violence or abuse. Complex trauma is exposure to varied and multiple traumatic events, often of an invasive, interpersonal nature such as neglect, child abuse, community violence, sexual exploitation or family abuse.

Responses from trauma can vary. Immediate responses to trauma tend to include shock and denial. Longer-term reactions can include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. Many studies have even linked CPTSD as a long term response to various forms of trauma. 

What does it mean to be trauma-informed?

“An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.” – Victor Frankl

Although Frankl was referring to psychological makeup and behavior patterns of prisoners in concentration camps during World War II, this has become a common saying within the domestic violence recovery space. If anything, these words help victims make sense and address their trauma responses. 

According to Psychology Today, “A woman’s experience of trauma impacts every area of functioning, including physical, mental, behavioral, and social.” Understanding trauma as an event and how it affects the victim’s world is what it means to be trauma-informed. 

Holistically addressing all aspects of life is called Trauma-Informed Care (TIC). TIC strengths-based framework that is grounded in an understanding of and responsiveness to the impact of trauma that emphasizes physical, psychological and emotional safety for both providers and survivors and that creates opportunities for survivors to rebuild a sense of control.

How does being trauma-informed help survivors of domestic violence?

When seeking professional help, it’s very important for victims of domestic violence to acknowledge you were exposed to trauma. It’s also important to ensure the professionals are familiar with trauma and trauma recovery. Being trauma-informed can mean a subtle difference in receiving the help necessary versus being re-traumatized.

Over the course of 10 years, I sought help from four different therapists and am still active in group therapy. My initial conversations with therapists started like this:  

  • [Therapist 1] “My family is crazy. I feel crazy. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. Can you please help?”
  • [Therapist 2] “My father has anger issues. I’m doing the best I can to not upset him. Can you help me be a better daughter?”
  • [Therapist 3] “My father tried to kill me. He lost his temper and pointed a loaded gun at me then threatened to take his own life. Please help?”
  • [Therapist 4] “I’m a survivor of domestic violence. I accept my family is doing the best they can. I need help processing compound trauma so I can cultivate healthy relationships. I acknowledge I have numerous people-pleasing and codependency patterns that no longer serve my highest good. Most of my decisions have been to keep me safe and avoid explosive situations. I would like to learn that not all instances of saying ‘no’ results in explosive situations. Can you please help me create a healthy world?”  

Again, ‘having a normal human response to an abnormal human experience is completely normal.’ Acknowledging trauma, trauma responses and finding trauma-informed care professionals can help victims of domestic violence shift from victim to survivor to thriver. 

Why is being trauma-informed important?

Being trauma-informed encourages sustainable recovery and health. 

For instance, if I sought professional help and told a therapist I was having troubles with anxious thoughts, depressive moments, big mood swings, suicidal thoughts and manic episodes where I’m perceived as being completely detached to reality (believing in rainbows, magic and often talking to animals), there is a good chance a therapist would prescribe a handful of meds or perhaps commit me for short term observation. Being trauma-informed also reduces the risk of re-traumatization. The same self-assessment, if I told the therapist I am a survivor of trauma or more specifically domestic violence, then I increase my chance for a sustainable recovery plan.

“More than 57 million people in the USA suffer from a mental illness. Over 50 percent of women who live with a mental illness have previously experienced some sort of trauma, ” continues FCADV, “Domestic violence can cause an adverse ripple effect on the emotional and psychological state of a survivor.”

Victims of trauma need (and deserve) support and understanding.

Trauma-informed society

Do you imagine a society that is trauma-informed? This means the adoption of principles and practices, as well as organizational culture, can promote a society of safety, empowerment, and healing. Everything starts with us. Being trauma-informed is a drop that creates a ripple effect. Victims can become survivors. Survivors can thrive and soon become the best advocates for the widespread adoption of trauma-informed care.

For more information, please check out the CDC‘s 6 guiding principles to trauma-informed care.

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, there is help. You can visit the Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence website at www.breakthesilencedv.org or chat with one of our helpline advocates at 855-287-1777.

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Share Your Story

Sharing our stories can be incredibly empowering while also helping others connect with survivors who have similar experiences. If you are inspired to share your story with us, submit here. You can choose to remain anonymous.

You can also donate to BTSADV here.

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