I Am the Mother of Both an Abuse Survivor and a Perpetrator
Editor’s note: The younger daughter discussed below has given her approval for this piece to be published. The older daughter is not in contact with the family. Names have been changed to protect the identity of all involved parties. If you have experienced childhood emotional or physical abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.
Why are parents — especially mothers — so frequently saddled with blame and guilt for the actions of their children?
Good parents mold, guide and direct their children. It’s true that some parents choose to not be engaged or have limitations to their involvement for a variety of reasons, and it’s true this can impact behavior. However sometimes, children do bad things. I’m not talking about elementary bantering, refusal to pick up their room or making prank phone calls. I’m speaking about actions of adolescent children that affect the lives of others. When this happens, the blame game begins. Surely, there is something or someone who prompted the bad behavior. The child is not the primary culprit. Frequent scapegoats are: parents, media and peers. Do these things play a role? Certainly. However, in spite of the best parenting efforts, some childrens’ actions forever change the lives of someone else. I am the parent of such a child.
My oldest child appeared to be a model student. She always made the honor roll and frequently had a 4.0 GPA. She was an active member of an after school activity and our church; however, I noticed she had few friends. Other than seeming to prefer isolation during her adolescent years, her teachers saw nothing unusual. They chalked up her preference to spend time with books, rather than peers, as a sign of maturity and independence. Little did they know, the child we lived with at home was quite different.
At home, she frequently exhibited massive mood swings and was continually angry. This wasn’t a new trend to go with the age and stage — it had always been. We constantly struggled to steady the waters. Her anger was explosive, but didn’t result in physical aggression toward us. She often lied about anything or nothing. When caught in a web of lies, she was defiant and accused everyone of being against her. Even when physical evidence was present to prove the lie, she would declare she didn’t know how the physical evidence got there — she hadn’t done anything wrong.
This became the norm. We walked on eggshells to keep the peace. Unless we had physical evidence she was lying, we had to ignore our gut instincts or pay the price with additional days/weeks of her extreme behavior. I know what you may be thinking… “No child of mine would behave that way! I would take the attitude right out of her! You just need consistent discipline and positive reinforcement.” We thought the same thing. Grounding, additional chores, loss of technology or other privileges… and nothing. Clearly linking the negative behavior with an appropriate consequence didn’t work. After all, someone else was always to blame for her behaviors. Consequences made her mood swings and eccentric behaviors increase, yet we were consistent. That’s what “good” parents do, right?
Things escalated and we were growing more concerned by her mid-teens. At one point, she threatened physical harm to another student at school. As a mother, I knew in my heart something was wrong. This was more than a simple misunderstanding between kids, and so our journey for outside help began. We sought out counseling, but counselors dismissed my concerns. Our daughter claimed she had no idea why she was in counseling. She hadn’t threatened anyone at school — the other students lied and the teachers believed her. She didn’t do anything wrong and didn’t need counseling. After a several months of weekly sessions, her behavior had only worsened at home. Counseling wasn’t worth it. She would say the right things in her session, and of course all of her communication was withheld from us. On the rare occasion the counselor would speak with me, she would indicate she felt her coping skills were improving. When I would discuss the increased hostility at home because of counseling, that was supposedly normal. Eventually, the counselor felt our daughter was doing much better and we could discontinue appointments if we wanted. I explained this in the car. Of course, she didn’t want to continue.
After a few moments of silence, she said, “If you ever try to make me go back to a counselor, I’ll make sure the other ‘Ashley’ comes back.” I swear, I felt a chill sweep through the car. She just referred to herself in the third person. I tried to remain calm.
“What do you mean the ‘other’ Ashley?” I asked.
“You know exactly what I mean.”
Her voice was not the typical voice of my daughter. It was cold, calculated and threatening. What was happening?
The next school year, she transferred. Maybe a fresh start would help. It did, but only for a short time. It didn’t take long until familiar stories unfolded. All the while, she maintained good grades and was the model student, according to her teachers. Well, it’s middle school, we thought. All kids are difficult at this age. Right? Yet, at home, we walked on egg shells more often than not to avoid conflict.
The details of these years is too long and complicated to describe here. We ended up having lab work completed to rule out a hormone imbalance. We started weekly counseling again, at what should have been a better facility, two hours away from home. We had a complete psych evaluation. Our reports of her behavior were not of concern. Parental input didn’t matter. After many months of two-hour treks to counseling, we were advised if she didn’t have a certain level of “buy in” to therapy, it was of no use. She seemed to have improved and no longer wanted to continue sessions. She had learned how to work the system. Counseling stopped, again.
Eventually, the truth came out. What had been our worst fears were not bad enough. She had been secretly harming another child. Over time it increased to excessive violence. The other child — fearing for her life — kept the secret for quite some time, resulting in a crushed sense of worth, physical, mental and emotional trauma, suicidal thoughts and post-traumatic stress disorder. Thankfully, she broke the silence, undoubtedly saving her life.
By now, you expect to hear how the law stepped in, investigated and brought justice. No. That’s not the way the story unfolds.
You see, the child she hurt was her sister. Yes, I am the mother of a victim (who prefers the term survivor), and the perpetrator. Because the girls were not six years apart in age, the police did not intervene. Child Protective Services does not deal with child on child violence. The systems designed to help failed us. We were left alone to decide what to do.
We swiftly took action to protect our youngest from further harm and to seek professional help for both children. It was difficult to find help for our oldest because apparently, I was told, children, especially girls, don’t do this sort of thing without the influence of drugs or abuse.
We took many steps to help our children and continue to do so. Our oldest cannot live at home.
The professionals did not listen. I was only a ranting mother who I’m sure was seen as “overreacting.” After all, I should be grateful my oldest wasn’t doing drugs, getting in trouble at school or sneaking out to be with boys. What would I, an educated professional and the mother of this child, know about anything?
Our story is a long and winding road we must forever travel, but we are not alone. More importantly, we know we did everything in our power and resources to get help throughout the years. But most importantly, we understand we did not cause our oldest to behave in this manner. We are not to blame.
We are the parents of a victim and the perpetrator who harmed her.
We love both fiercely.
We choose to preserve life and safety over the opinions of others who try to cast blame and shame that our oldest no longer lives in our home.
Unless you have walked this path, you cannot imagine the heartbreak and tears that water every step of the journey.
What will come of our journey?
Tears regularly water the lonesome path. I could allow silence and solitude to cover each step with weeds to hide pain and isolation. But I choose to speak out.
Who decides what horrors must be hidden? Culture? Society?
Who decides if I must hide in the shadows of shame cast by my own child who willfully hurt another?
It’s not you.
Before you decide to throw stones at me or my family, I ask that you remember the victim and the deep loss you will never comprehend. Instead of casting judgment and throwing stones, quietly lay your stone on the ground in memorial of the violence and devastation that has occurred. We are grieving. We will continue to grieve. Place your stone on the ground in memorial and hug your own children more tightly tonight.
I will raise my voice to bring awareness to sibling violence and abuse. The victims of sibling abuse and their parents need not hide in the shadows of fear and shame.
Speak out for the victim.
Speak out for the perpetrator.
Speak out and get help for your family.
Speak out for yourself.
Speak out for hope.
If you or a loved one is affected by domestic violence or emotional abuse and need help, call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
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Getty Images photo via kerkez