Dr Christine Cocchiola talks to FiLiA Trustee Sally Jackson about the impact of coercive control on children and the Mother-Child relationship and how to heal together after abuse.
Dr. Christine Marie Cocchiola, DSW, LCSW is a Coercive Control Advocate, Educator, Researcher & Survivor. She is a college professor teaching social work in the CT College System for the last 20 years and is also an adjunct instructor at NYU. Her expertise is in the areas of intimate partner violence, trauma, and child abuse, developing and presenting workshops on these topics both nationally and internationally. Christine, a Board Member of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, has supported policy codifying coercive control and has a small private practice, primarily serving victims and survivors of coercive control. She is the creator of the Protective Parenting Program, supporting protective mothers on their journey of healing their children.
You can find more about her work on her website or follow her on Instagram.
Parenting After Coercive Control – an American Perspective
Sally Jackson in conversation with Dr Christine Cocchiola
Sally: I'm really pleased to be joined today by Dr Christine Cocchiola, who's a coercive control advocate, educator, researcher and survivor joining us from America (USA) today. She’s a professor, and she teaches social work students, and she's also a board member for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in the States.
She's also created a wonderful programme called the Protective Parenting Program, and I'm sure we'll hear a little bit about that. But for now, welcome Christine. I'm really glad you could join us.
Christine: Thank you so much, Sally, for having me.
Sally: It’s really great to speak to you. As I say, you are an expert in coercive control and we've been fortunate to speak with some of the women in the UK that are working around the issue.
It's really interesting to hear the perspective from America (USA) and I wonder if we could perhaps start with you, and tell us a little bit about you and your background and how you got to be involved in this work.
Christine: Absolutely. I actually, at the age of 19, began volunteering at a local umbrella agency here locally, and really was very interested in advocating for victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault, and then eventually worked in Child Protective Services advocating for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
It just kept on coming up; this issue kept reoccurring. It's interesting in Child Protective Services, it always seems to be, along with abuse of children, is this domestic abuse and of course mental health issues that people are suffering because of their experiences of domestic abuse. And from there I went on to get a Masters in social work and worked, and continued to work, in the Connecticut College system here in Connecticut, in the United States, teaching social work studies every single semester, teaching on the power and control wheel every single semester.
And it's really interesting because about 20-ish years into my marriage, I really began to put the pieces of the puzzle together. I couldn't understand why I never seemed to make my partner pleased with me, why he wasn't ever proud of me. And I really didn't understand the dynamics going on within the relationship between my children and I.
Something just seemed off and, you know, we know that sometimes teenage girls, teenage boys can be a little bit difficult, right? But there was something, it felt like almost a disdain for me, particularly from my daughter, and I just couldn't put my finger on it. And I realised at some point that really the best thing for me to do would be to finally leave.
Now, I had attempted to leave several times, and every time there was really significant backlash, and it would be intermittent with, ‘Please don't leave me. You're my soulmate. I love you so much.’ But then there would be, ‘You're an awful mother. You'll never amount to anything. Everyone will know who you are.’
And now when I look back, it's just so clear that that was all coercive control. And so, when I did finally leave, and the reason why I left is, I realised I had a choice. If I stayed, I wasn't sure my relationship with my daughter would ever repair. And now I know that it wouldn't have repaired either with my son, who was slightly older.
She was 17 and there was a situation, when I left, where she and my ex had an argument, because what ended up occurring is that he was coercively controlling the children, of course. And so, she and he had an argument and he assaulted her and he was arrested, and she and I are driving home from the court date and she has a protective order against him now because of this incident. ,And we're driving home and I say, ‘When did this start?’ Just like speaking to the ear, and her response was, now remember she was 17, ‘When I was nine.’ I said, ‘When you were nine? What do you mean? Oh, remember the time?’ And so he had had an affair. Of course, I thought it was his only affair, but he had had an affair, and I had taken the kids to my mum's and then come back like I had gone away for the weekend to her house to separate with my children. And he was, again, that intermittent, ‘I love you. Please don't leave me. We'll get therapy.’ But also then, ‘You're kidnapping the children.’ I was accused of kidnapping my children. ‘The police are going to come to the house.’ There was lots of threats.
So I went back and that evening, when I went to teach my evening courses at the college where I teach, she said that he began telling my children that I was unstable. That I had cheated on him, that I couldn't be trusted, that ‘Your mother, suffers from depression and anxiety. That she's unwell. She's mentally unstable.’
I just couldn't believe it. Can you imagine hearing that for eight years of your children's life, they had been so oppressed by someone that I kept trying to fix the relationship with, that I kept trying to ensure that I wasn't doing anything wrong.
I think I count myself rather lucky, because I think the word self-esteem comes up a lot, you know – victims have low self-worth. I think that self-esteem is a spectrum of difficulties and, for me, I had a wonderful career. I received validation from other places in my life. I didn't need it from my husband at the time.
But the one thing I knew was that my children just didn't love me implicitly, and I couldn't understand why. And thankfully, which we'll talk about today, is that when a parent, a protective, healthy parent, has an attachment with their children, that's really something that the abuser works tirelessly to fracture. But that attachment never, ever goes away. And I want every protective parent out there to hear that is that even if your children are turned away from you now, that attachment is always there. He can never fully take it away. And that's what we hold onto.
So yes, I left. It became the post separation abuse. What we know about coercive control is that 90% of victims of coercive control suffers an intensification of that coercive control post separation, because the pathology of an abuser really will not allow them to be rejected in that way. It's just something they cannot handle. It's the biggest shame. And so they retaliate very significantly. And that's what happened to me.
And I really do believe that, when that situation happened with my daughter, that was very clear to me that the relationship was over. But prior to that, I was receiving over 300 harassing, threatening emails a month for about 13 months. I never went to the police until 13 months later, because I just didn't want to get him arrested. I couldn't believe this was him. And that's what ends up happening, right? Is there, ends up being this cognitive dissonance. You don't want to believe the person is as bad as they are.
And so I always say to people, here I was working in the field teaching every single semester on the power and control wheel. Didn't even know it was going on in my home. And then the post separation abuse, had he not been so horrifying to me with the post separation abuse, I might still be with him. I might still be with him.
So, I think your listeners need to understand that this is so insidious. It's a pattern of behaviour. There are certainly good times, there are certainly behaviours, they're not authentically good by the way, they're never authentically good, but that there are behaviours that create this inability – it's been called trauma bonding by some people – this inability to really see clearly what's going on, because our brain so badly wants to keep us safe. And if safety means really integrating those good experiences versus recalling the negative experiences, then that's what we're going to return to.
Sally: It's interesting, isn't it? Because that's compounded by living in a society where we're told part of our role as women is to make things better, to sort things out. Be the good communicators. Find a way through. And of course, as you say, you've had however much time invested in a relationship with someone and you don't want to believe that actually that person could be doing that.
So, when you have some of the good times, it's really tempting to believe we can get back to this. It was a bad phase, et cetera, et cetera. And I think, because of the sort of the insidious nature of coercive control, it kind of creeps up within a relationship and then suddenly you realise what you are living in, but you've not noticed it getting there, if that makes sense.
Christine: That makes perfect sense. It does make perfect sense and I think that you bring up such an important point. This truly is a gender oppression and understanding that we live in a society that creates demands on women to behave certain ways in relationships. I was reading literature this past week about how there's even this experience of children, well, actually I was reaching reading Dr Emma Katz's book [Coercive Control in Children’s and Mothers’ Lives] again, that children hold their mums to different standards than they do dads. A dad can be a relatively okay parent, and that's considered valuable. And a mum has different standards.
I actually did a research study that I do hope will be published at some point. I'm in the process of doing that, but it really highlights this idea of subjugation, not that it is ever a victim's fault. It's never a victim's fault, but I believe that abusers will seek out people in relationships that they can manoeuvre and in some ways, of course, coercively control, but that abusers are not going to seek out a woman who perhaps is not going to be more accommodating, is not going to attempt to please; that's what abusers look for.
And so your point about not even wanting to leave the relationship, then add in when you have children, the last thing you want to do is break apart your family. We live in a world where it's expected that families stay together.
So it was a very painful experience, because I was with him basically 34 years of my life. I met him when I was 16 and we were married 27 years. So you could imagine the difficulty in leaving. But that statement from my daughter was certainly a solidifier of that.
Sally: And you described just now several different types of behaviour. And I think again, we're still not, and certainly here in the UK, I think particularly when we talk about some of the agencies that are here to support and help, our criminal justice agencies, our child protection agencies, there's still not a great understanding of what coercive control is. And domestic abuse is often framed in a very sort of incident-based way. ‘When was the last time it happened?’ rather than recognising this is 24/7 that it’s going on.
So could you talk to us a little bit about how you would describe what coercive control is and what that might look like in a relationship?
Christine: Absolutely, and I should mention that I'm actually a founding member of the International Coercive Control Conference here in the United States. And we had our second year this year. And really it is about educating about how coercive control shows up in so many places in our lives and intimate relationships.
It's a pattern of behaviour that is oftentimes non-physical, or at least starts non-physical, and that it includes things like psychological abuse, legal abuse, financial abuse, sexual abuse and use of the children as pawns. And so really unpacking that psychological abuse is important, because that can look so varied.
It can be intimidation, isolation, gaslighting, manipulation. It can be things such as, which I think is so important to highlight, as the diminishing of someone's autonomy. So again, as I go back to thinking about, what do these abusers look for in relationships, they look for people that are going to be more willing to give more in a relationship.
Isn't that a wonderful quality? Someone who is a giver. And so the more I give, the more that the abuser is going to take, and the more that I do that, the more he diminishes who I am as a person. He diminishes my ability to really know, as Evan Stark talks about, to know what I should know about me and about my world, and so that really in some ways takes away, well, actually in most ways, takes away who we are. We don't even know who we are any longer in that relationship.
And I think, again, when we think about how it shows up in all or many parts of our lives. For many of us in our workplace, it certainly shows up in family court, coercive control – the courts are complicit. It's called compound trauma. It's another traumatisation of victims in court. It certainly shows up in the criminal justice system where, if a woman does not have a bruise, then was she really harmed?
And so that's the really, I think, remarkable aspect is that here in the United States, we now have five states that codify coercive control as a form of domestic violence, meaning that non-physical violence can certainly still be abuse. And that it does show up that way, and that more than likely, it may show up that way before it becomes physical, but when it becomes physical, those are often the most deadly.
These are people who want power over us. Their goal is to have power over others and to do it in such a way that even, again, I say this all the time to my clients, even the most astute of us do not recognise the signs. I certainly am one of those people.
Sally: I know Evan Stark talks about it in the context of a liberty crime, and I think one of the interesting things is, we might initially perceive that to be a crime under which your liberty is restricted. So maybe you can't go out, you're being prevented from going somewhere because of the abusive situation you're living in. But with coercive control, because of the way in which the perpetrator will manipulate circumstances, it would be to the stage where actually you would not go out because of the possible consequences. So, it's not necessarily that someone is preventing you from going out; it's you actively deciding, I'm not going to go out because I'm making a decision it would be safer for me to stay here, or it'll be better for the children. He won't kick off and the children will be able to go to that party this weekend if I don't.
So it's a way in which you are involved in that control in a way that you may be making decisions, but actually, it's not real choice. It's decisions within a context of the abusive situation that you are living with.
Christine: I appreciate you saying that because I think it's important to highlight that that's what ends up occurring. It is that victims, and when I say victims, I mean adult victims and the children in the home, begin to regulate their behaviours based on what they expect might occur from the abuser.
And I would say to your listeners, it's really important to understand that coercive control can show up in a spectrum of ways. In other words, we do often talk about the alarming circumstances of someone choosing not to go out because perhaps they'll be significant retaliation if that person were to go out or perhaps she doesn't feel her children are safe.
In my particular situation, the children adored their dad, adored him, and not because he appeared to be a bad father. I believe all abusers are not good fathers for sure. But there was a coercive persuasion going on, where they believed that he was just fun and kind of would let them do, you know, what they wanted. And mum was the one who held them accountable.
And so, if I chose not to go out, and this happens with other victims, I hear this all the time with clients, is it may be that I choose not to go out because you know what, he'll be angry later… at me, like, just not talk to me for a few days. It's not going to be this explosive situation. It might be just not being talked to for two days, and you wonder why, and then you're like, ‘Are you angry with me? Is something wrong?’ ‘No, nothing's wrong. Nothing's wrong.’ So it's this manipulation and of course this gaslighting right, that occurs. And in the meantime, the kids are happy as clams, as we say, they don't know that anything's going on.
And I think that in those types of situations that I hear of very frequently, it's not as blatant to the victim, the adult victim. The children are entirely clueless that there's anything abusive. And frankly, the adult victim is trying to keep the peace in the home. So perhaps she's really upset that she's being ignored for two days, but if she brings that up, then she is going to be made out to be… ‘Look at mum, complaining all the time,’ or ‘What's the problem with mom? Why does she have a problem? Just because I feel quiet. I don't feel like talking. I'm into my TV show,’ or whatever.
So there is a crazy-making that is going on. And so then the mom or the victim, the primary victim, recognises it's better not to say anything.
And by not saying anything, she is in many ways – I don't think gaslighting is the right term, although I do use it – but she is in many ways gaslighting her own children. Because she's not being honest with what's going on for fear of, and again, not a fear of death or abuse, like physical violence, just ‘What is going to be the ramifications of my bringing up this issue?’
And so I use financial abuse as an example, because there are many victims who certainly are not allowed to work, who are basically told that their job isn't any good, or the work that they do is diminished. Right? They may be diminished as not doing something that's important in society and the community, all of those things. They also may be given a budget or not allowed to save their own money. In some cases, it may be the complete opposite. It may be that you are the work horse; you are the one bringing in all the money, but you don’t even know that that’s a bad thing. Your partner’s busy fixing maybe the door, so he can't work extra hours because he does household like things like that.
I'll give you just a quick snippet again of my example. I like literally took care of all of the yard work. I did all of the yard work. I worked one full-time job, at least two part-time jobs, all so that our family could have wonderful vacations. But I look back and I realise that that's coercive control. That burden was put on me, and I hear this from victims a lot, where there is an expectation that every family item that is supposed to bring joy is only because one person was in charge of ensuring that there were the funds for that.
Sally: Talking about that, about the joy and the fun times, just reminds me again, with children we often see this. We know that for children to grow up healthily need to have some boundaries. They need to know what's safe, what's not safe, if they're going to school that they get their homework done so that they can achieve. But actually from their point of view, if you are the parent that says, don't worry about your homework, stay up late and watch this movie with me. And the other parent is saying, no, you shouldn't do that. You need to get your homework done. From a child's perspective, it's really easy to see who's the fun parent and who's the boring parent. And of course, again, that's another form of manipulation and a kind of like slow burner effect on the way that that might impact on the children's lives. You know, whether or not they're able to get the qualifications that they want to get, whether or not they're feeling awake in school and able to learn and take the most of the education that they're experiencing but obviously from their perspective at the time, it feels like one parent's really cool and the other parent is spoiling all of their fun.
Christine: I love that – ‘slow burn’. I do clinical work. I see clients – I'm a social worker – so I see people who have experienced this. And this is the area that I truly love, because I feel like these victims often come and they're like, ‘What is wrong? I can’t wrap my head around what's going on.’ Because the manipulation is so intensive.
There are parents who believe, ‘Why would anyone diminish me in the home? Why would anyone do that on purpose?’ Right? We can't believe that someone would do that, but an abuser will do this. The idea is to elevate the abuser in the home while diminishing the protective parent, the parent who is trying to be a well-rounded parent, creating appropriate boundaries for children. And then we wonder why a child may then decide that there's one parent that they want to be with.
Sally: That's so tough for mums, isn't it? Because as we said at the beginning of this discussion, it can be a bit of a process to get to the point where you recognise that you're living within an abusive situation and then to plan and work out how you might be able to leave and to get safe.
To then be faced with your children, who are part of the reason why you're trying to separate and giving them a safe and full life moving forward, are kind of like protecting dad and saying they want to be with dad and emotionally that's, that's a really tough one to deal with.
Christine: Yes, and I would say that then what happens sometimes is children become the weapon, right? This is what's happened is the children become the weapon of the abuser of this coercive controller, and when they become that weapon, sometimes they are mimicking some of the behaviours that they have seen by the coercive controller either tell them or behave towards the adult victim.
I would say probably the most heart-breaking is when your child is saying things to you that you know they have heard from the abuser. They are role modelling in some ways, mimicking that behaviour, and for protective mums. when this is occurring, it's a very tricky place. Because if they attempt to discipline, then of course we have this coercive controller who's minimising the behaviour, who's saying – and again, gaslighting the adult victim into believing – that maybe this isn't a valid reason for any type of discipline. And then we have this child who then continues to get empowered. They begin to become more emboldened in their behaviour.
It's something that we do talk about in the field – what type of parenting do children need? Children need a really strong attachment to one primary caretaker in their life who has loved them unconditionally and with positive regard. And that, of course, is the protective parent.
However, when you have another person working, and I always say these abusers are working double time, to diminish your role as the protective parent, then the child cannot see clearly that that's who you are, and again, especially if they are getting what they want or desire from the coercive controller.
I use this analogy: so we're in a lifeboat, the protective parent is on a lifeboat, and the goal is – so this coercive controller is creating immense stormy seas and the children are out in the stormy seas – and the goal is to pull the children into the lifeboat. But if a child doesn’t even know they need a lifeline, if they don’t even know that they need it, because they feel like everything's appropriate, then how do we get them into our lifeboat? The tactics of the abuser are to diminish the use of that lifeboat over and over again, and these children then are lost at sea. I mean, truly lost, and that is, I believe, probably the most painful thing for any protective parent. And then, because this child is aligned with this abuser and taking on some of these qualities, the abuser is fracturing their attachment with the protective parent. So, what's going on with their ego?
So, what we know is that individuals are typically born with either more ego compromised tendencies or ego resiliency. So, let's talk about the coercive controller, probably born more ego compromised. The brain genetics play a part in this, and then he grows up in a home where he does not have the unconditional positive regard from one protective parent, just one. He doesn't get that. He's put down, he's diminished. He doesn't develop a healthy ego. Well, when people don't develop healthy egos, they have to actually perform oftentimes in a way that seems like, wow, they're a nice guy. They seem to have it all together. Then they become parents and they are coercive controllers, let's just say, right? This is the way that this occurs.
Then they are aligning their children with them and diminishing the other parent, the one parent that child needs. Do you see how it creates intergenerational trauma? And so, really, what needs to occur is the child needs to see the protective parent for who they are in order for the child not to have an ego that is compromised.
The abuser's goal, as a coercive controller, is to compromise the ego. That's their goal. If they can compromise the ego, the child loses agency. If the child loses agency, they're not able to discern who's healthy and who's unhealthy. If the adult victim isn't able to discern what's going on in the relationship, you see how that just compounds that more, so these children are literally lost.
They are so confused and lost. And then perhaps take on, again, mimicking the behaviours of the abuser. And where does that put protective parents? It traps them again.
Sally: It feels like we come to a place where you think, my goodness, this is awful. What can we do then? How can we either as professionals or family members or friends or neighbours, what can we be doing to support both mums and of course the children to move forward and to recover from some of the abuse and the coercive controlling behaviours they've experienced?
Christine: So I think it's so important that we have trauma informed therapists who also know what coercive control is. This is the problem. I have no one to refer my clients to. There are very few people who understand this abuse. We also need, systemically, for people to understand, for professionals in the court system to understand, that when an abuser has abused an adult victim, that the children are also victims.
This is a significant problem, where we are oftentimes giving custody or sharing custody with an abuser when he has significantly harmed, whether it's been covert or overt, the adult victim. We need the judicial system to understand what coercive control is. We need more clinicians to understand what coercive control is, and in this way we begin to understand how harmful this abuse is.
I'm going to go back to our definition. It is the foundation of most domestic abuse. It is. And until we begin highlighting it as a form of abuse that harms both adult and child victims, we're not going to be able to help all of these adult and child victims.
So, best practices are that a victim and her children are able to engage in therapy where someone understands the insidious nature of this abuse and really gets to work on supporting the attachment between the adult victim and the child. Because, again, the coercive controller has worked double time to fracture that.
That's all he does all day long, to try to fracture that relationship and it again, maybe over or covert, it's not necessarily something that we say, 'Oh, there he is doing it again.’ It’s something that is so readily missed. So there's that.
I would also say that what's so important for protective mums is that they begin to really discern their own experiences. And they are significant trauma victims. There is no question about the trauma that they have experienced. But I have seen it work where if they can play the part of being stronger, being in a position of power, they may not feel that in their hearts, but if they can play the part of being in a position of power, personal power. This is different than the coercive controller's power, personal power. And if they can minimise their reactions to their children – minimise it – then they disempower the child's negative behaviours.
When an adult victim has been harmed by the coercive controller, let's just say, he always said, Oh, you're never going to amount to anything. That job is just a dumb job. It's a dumb, lame job.’ And he might have even said it like, ‘Oh, your mum's going to that job again. Ugh.’ You know, ‘I wish you'd get a better job.’ It may have even come across as loving, ‘Oh, when are you going to give up that job? I really, I think you could, you know, a lot of people do better than that.’
So again, you see how varied it is, but it is still coercive control. It's a diminishing of her autonomy, her ability, a diminishing of her personhood. And so, the children hear this, and then the child begins to say something like, ‘Well, that's a dumb job anyway. Why would you want to work there? Why would you want to do that work? That's dumb.’
And so now the victim, who maybe has left the relationship, by the way, because we know this, it certainly intensifies post-separation, is triggered by the child saying this because this is exactly what the abuser said, and now she sees it clearly. So her reaction is, 'Why would you talk to me that way? Why would you say that to me? That's disrespectful.’ Or like it might be a visceral reaction, because it's a trauma. And so what I say to protective mums is what we have to do is diminish, not the child, but the behaviour when the children are doing this. Because they are literally being weaponised against you, either from years –maybe they're no longer even seeing the abuser, it doesn't matter – they still have that within them. And so the best response is, ‘I'm sorry you feel that way. That's not true.’ And so I want protective moms to understand that diminishing it disempowers that. So in that moment you might want to be very angry and it does feel disrespectful, but your child is a child. I don't care if they're 20.
So this is the other thing that is so important to understand is these children are very often not their chronological age. They have received psychological maltreatment. Their brain has been harmed significantly. So they do not behave oftentimes like a typical child of their age.
I was with a mum the other day, and her child is 15 and behaving much more like a five-year-old having a tantrum sometimes. How do I switch as a trauma victim? By the way, this is so hard. I say to my mum’s this is the hardest work you'll ever do.
But what I really want moms to be able to do, and protective parents to do, is to actually, in some ways you're the protective mom, but you're also counsellor in the home. You are the clinician because oftentimes, by the way, these abusers prevent children from getting therapy. They prevent their child from seeking someone who might be able to support their mental health.
So how do we fix that? Well, guess what? Protective mums actually have to take on that role in the home. So when your child's calling you a horrible name, perhaps they say something like, ‘Oh, you're such a bitch.’ They're 15 years old, and they say that. Is that really them saying that, or is that the pain of what they've heard about you coming out?
Children behave from a place of pain. So if you were a protective mom, you might behave one way, but you're actually in that moment given an opportunity. It is an amazing opportunity to intervene and provide clinical support. And by the way, when you do that, you're behaving differently than the abuser has said you will. Because the abuser says, ‘Oh, she always gets mad. Oh, she has a temper, she yells, she this… she that…’ And you're behaving differently than your child expects you to behave. They're expecting you to have a visceral reaction, to be upset. So I call it, and many people in the field, we call it lending calm; we’re calm.
First, we come up with about two statements. Validation: ‘I'm sorry you feel that way. That's not true.’ And then they say it again and we say, ‘Yeah, that's not true.’ And they say it again and we disengage maybe from the area. We might say, ‘Oh, you know what, I have to go make a phone call. I'll be right back,’ or ‘If you'd like to talk about this later, we can talk about it later.’ But we disengage. But it's not a disengagement angry. It's a place of calm. It’s a ‘I'm just going to run out and go for a run now.’ And your child may say, ‘Oh, there you go. Running off. There you go. Look at you running off. Just like Dad always says, you run off and you won't even talk about it.’ ‘Oh, no, sweetheart. I'm not, I'm not running off. I'm happy to talk with you about this in an hour,’ and you disengage.
And so these are children who are so ego compromised due to the abuse, that our number one role has to be, that we create ego resiliency. That we foster in them, personal power and agency, which means we have to foster it in ourselves. And sometimes we are almost faking it, even if we don't feel it.
Sally: There are so many occasions when it is that kind of like fake it till you make it, isn't it? And although in some ways that might not feel genuine at the time, I think sometimes it can actually be quite helpful, because it's a tool that you are using, so you don't have to engage with the very real emotions that you're feeling. You just kind of think I know what I need to do in this situation.
I'm going to say this and then I'm going to say this. And it gives you a bit of a pause to be able to break away from those very real emotions. And so when you do discuss it with your child, you are genuinely in a much calmer place, to be able to talk about it rather than, when something hurtful perhaps has happened and quite understandably you're going to be upset.
Christine: We have a toolkit and I have mums who say, ‘But how could I not address his bad behaviour? Like he's being bad and this is wrong.’ And absolutely. I mean, that is harmful behaviour, and it hurts so, so much. And that's the other thing mums say, but I had to fake it while I was living with him and I had to regulate my behaviour. Okay, you did, you did there with that abuser. But if I told you, if you can do this here with your child, you actually are going to help your child recover from their trauma. And what's the number one thing that every protective parent wants more than anything in the world? It’s a healthy child who's been able to recover.
So if you can help your child recover by doing these steps and taking these actions in your own home – creating a safe haven, creating a place of calm, being different than the abuser expects you to be and different than your child expects you to be, which means yes, changing a little bit, means a little bit of acting, altering. If you can do that and your child gets healthier, aren't you going to get healthier? Oh my gosh. That's what makes us all healthy isn't it? That's the one thing we want more than anything in the world, is to elevate our children to a space where they can be healthier. And then they begin to see it.
They begin to see if you are behaving the way the abuser expects you to behave, which might be angry, triggered, certainly maybe a little yelling. And this is the thing, these kids are so sensitive to yelling. That's the one thing many coercive controllers say is, ‘Oh, she yells all the time.’ And so, if you can behave differently, then when your child comes into your home, your child actually feels safer. They begin to figure out that your home is the safe home. Your home was always a safe home, but they begin to figure out that your home is the safe home. And then all this negative behaviour you're seeing in the home, the pain, they are regulating more quickly when they come to you.
I say to mums, like, if your child comes in the door and every time they come in the door from a visit with the abuser, and oh my gosh, how heart-breaking to send your child to the abuser, right? So every time they come home, you're waiting. You're like, ‘How'd it go? What happened? Did you have a good time?’ Just questions that are our trauma, right? What if your child came home and you were, I don't know, laying on the couch reading a book? Doing something entirely different than they expect, because every time they're walking in the door, they're expecting you to be a certain way, and that dis-regulates them; they're ready to be defensive.
So how do you present in a different way? Maybe, I don't know, maybe you're taking a hot bath. How are you regulating yourself before they come home? I say to mums, what are the ways that you are triggered by your child's behaviour? I need you to list them. And now I need you to figure out how you're going to respond differently to each one of those.
So come up with five ways your child triggers you, and then, what are five ways that you trigger your child? We all trigger our children in some way. There's something you say or do, you don't mean it, but you're triggering them and how do you not do that any longer?
Sally: I know some of the work that Emma's done, Emma Katz, has shown how powerful it is when you have that bond between child and mum. And as you say, it may have been attacked in several different ways, but the fact that you've created that attachment, and there is that security of that attachment, that even if they've been through some really horrific stuff, the maintenance of that, ‘I'm still here. I still love you. We'll still find a way through this,’ can have such a huge impact on their ability, both boys and girls, young children and older children, to be able to recover fully from what they've experienced.
Christine: Absolutely. It's so important. They can, children can recover. And I believe that it occurs and again, as Emma states, protective mums have such an important role. They really do. We may not feel healthy, we may feel really compromised, we may be overwhelmed, but if we can heal in symmetry with our children, that's the greatest gift. It truly is.
We show our children a path to freedom by simply being in a different space, being different with them, so that they begin to see us very clearly as the person that they can trust. Every person needs unconditional positive regard from a primary caretaker. You are that caretaker, but your child's been told otherwise perhaps. That's been diminished. How do you rise up? How do you elevate? I call it elevating mama, like how do we elevate the mama in the home? Because you've been diminished for so long, and you do that by showing your child this path to freedom, by showing them over and over again that you are strong. You are safe. By not reacting to them, by having responses.
Sally: It's a positive way to sort of come to a conclusion, I think, and it really reminds me that the power and the strength of mums and the awesome work that they do in keeping this world turning, but also how powerful we can be as sisters, as friends, as female supporters in helping mums go through that journey with their children and being there and reinforcing that they're doing a good job and that they're getting there, and you can see the children's recovery and how important that support around mum is as well.
So thank you so much, Christine, for spending time with us and talking about your work and talking about some of the methods that you've used to help mums and children to recover.
We look forward to hearing more from you. I will put some links along with the podcast, because I know you've got some really great resources on your website as well. So then our listeners can have a look at those and investigate a bit further. But for now, just thanks for your time and thanks for the work that you're doing.
Christine: Thank you so much for your time and all of the work that you're doing, thank you.