Psychological domestic violence and child abuse – though extremely hurtful, degrading, and traumatic, and extremely incisive – may never be identified when hidden by a very sophisticated, abusive, emotionally violent parent.
By Alice Brown Rodriguez, Family Lawyer
Domestic violence does not always show up in the courtroom as an adult abuser against an adult victim. Sometimes, there is the pernicious, long-term, insidious psychological domestic violence against children that remains hidden because children have no language to describe what is happening to them behind closed doors.
Custodial parents can often disguise the psychological domestic abuse of a young child because that parent’s control of the conditions in the home, the minimal visitation allowed to the non-custodial parent, and the ability to marginalize and create a false narrative about the child is powerful. When the child makes an outcry, a psychologically abusive parent will allege in the courtroom that the child is being lazy, rebellious, a liar, has ADHD, is spoiled, or overly imaginative.
Psychological Domestic Violence and Child Abuse – Challenges for Family Lawyers
The challenge in this type of case is that the power generally lies in the mouth of the abusing adult. Though child abuse is commonly viewed as involving physical violence, domestic violence is not always the laying on of hands, whipping with extension cords, slapping the child across the face, burning the child with a curling iron, or even harsh kicking or pinching. Sometimes, the subtleties confuse the child and even make adults question a child who may timidly seek to stand up against a parent who is psychologically abusing them behind closed doors.
When a child presents with depression, anxiety, suicidal ideations, social awkwardness, and bedwetting, the attorneys must take a deeper look and not automatically assume that it is school anxiety or teenage emotional difficulties. Psychological child abuse is domestic violence, and the child is unlikely to be able to voice what is happening to her behind closed doors.
Psychological domestic violence is even more difficult to uncover if the abusing parent is the one taking the child to hand-selected counselors and pediatricians and creating the narrative with those professionals. Family lawyers must scrutinize parenting schedules that only give holiday visitation to a non-custodial parent, or one weekend in the month, especially when the abusing custodial parent repeatedly fails to inform the non-custodial parent of the child’s difficulties and at the same time swears the child to secrecy with the threat of punishments, such as:
- taking away phones, tablets, or computers,
- leaving the child alone in the home,
- hiding the home phone so the child cannot call the other parent, or
- making negative remarks about what the non-custodial parent will say or do if they find out the child is wetting the bed.
When the non-custodial parent is described by the abusing parent as an overly dramatic villain whom the child cannot trust, this is a form of psychological gaslighting that removes all feelings of safety from the child while creating a desperate feeling of loneliness.
Look Beneath the Surface to Discover Psychological Child Abuse
Attorneys must be careful to take a closer look into the facts and refuse to accept the surface narrative that is so easily created around the psychological domestic violence against a child. Psychological domestic violence is a silent killer of innocent children, and the symptoms mentioned above are often dismissed or classified as unremarkable and non-material to the case.
Painful psychological invalidation is present when a child says things such as:
- “My father never tells me that he loves me,”
- “My mother tells me I’m developing too quickly,”
- “My dad says I can’t sing as good as my friend so I shouldn’t try,”
- “My mother yells all the time,”
- “My father talks bad about my mother to his friends and my uncles.”
If the child keeps repeating statements like these, which show a pattern of invalidation accompanied by the symptoms previously mentioned, get that child help immediately. If you are the advocate for the non-custodial parent, you should not hesitate to advise the Court that the child needs a Guardian Ad Litem appointed to protect the child’s best interest.
Do Emotional Invalidation and Psychological Abuse of a Child Constitute Domestic Violence?
While the legal profession and the mental health industry may not call emotional invalidation and emotional abuse of a child domestic violence, when the symptomatic effects on a child are the same, or worse for a child psychologically, as for an adult who suffers physical violence, in my opinion, that child is in an unsafe, violent domestic environment. For further discussion of the effects of psychological invalidation on a child, see generally www.regain.us/advice/psychology and Psychological Effects of Domestic Violence on Children – Parenting Tips and Advice.
For children to flourish and thrive, they must be able to experience emotional safety and have healthy communication with at least one and preferably both parents. There is nothing more domestically violent and painful to a child than having a parent who engages in the violence of psychological invalidation. When one adult gaslights another adult, devalues another adult, minimizes the accomplishments of another adult, or body shames another adult, the victim usually has language for what is happening to them (although some victims may be unwilling or unable to speak about the abuse). An adult victim may also have some autonomy, credibility, financial resources, or agency assistance to get away from the abuse.
A child does not have access to those resources without professional help. The abusive parent has trained the child not to tell with statements like, “What happens in this house stays in this house!” or “You are a stupid liar – no one is going to believe the stories you make up about me!” However, watching a young child or a teenager being emotionally abused by a parent is so painful to because that child does not have the power to get the help needed. It is even more agonizing when the child is not believed and is labeled by the abusing parent as “spoiled” or “lazy.”
Learn to Recognize a Psychologically Abused Child
Family law attorneys must educate themselves on what domestic violence and abuse in the rejection of a child looks like when engaged in hotly contested custody litigation. The abusive parent can pass off their psychological abuse as “discipline” or “tough love” when their child does not have the maturity or the insight to give language to what is happening to them. When children are minimized, ostracized, and marginalized – and professionals are unknowingly triangulated and recruited to promote the abusive parent’s narrative – the traumatic effects of self-doubt, distress, confusion, and feelings of helplessness or hopelessness can destroy an innocent life.
The real tragedy is that the child is dying inside and this form of domestic violence – though extremely hurtful, degrading, and traumatic, and extremely incisive – may never be identified and proved if it is being hidden by a sophisticated, abusive, emotionally violent parent whose public image is far more powerful than a child’s timid outcry.
Even more tragic is when the psychological domestic violence shows up in the child as an adult, and the pattern is repeated, the beat goes on, and the curse of domestic psychological violence destroys families generation after generation.
Alice Brown Rodriguez is an attorney specializing in family law and civil litigation in Peachtree City, Georgia. She is also a Certified Confidence Coach, specializing in helping professionals navigate painful decisions – and sometimes painful secrets. Alice provides specialized legal services at her boutique-style firm, maintaining a personalized client concept, catering to select businesses and private individuals. See her LinkedIn Profile here.
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