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Helping Children Who Live With An Abusive Parent

Dr. Meg Meeker

Dr. Meg Meeker

Dear Dr. Meg,

My husband has been diagnosed with BPD, NPD, and low emotional IQ. We have one son who is seventeen years old. Our son is a great kid, but is very hurt and angry from the abuse we both get from my husband. I try to put good Christian male role models in our son’s life. I’m looking for advice on how to parent in this situation and at what developmental milestones our son should be. I am desperate for advice on how to raise a whole and healthy son! Thank you.


Desperate For Advice

Dear DFA,

I am sorry that you are struggling with these issues. You need to know that you are not alone. Many parents have to help their children navigate tough relationships with a parent who has depression, anxiety or alcoholism. I also want to tell you that I have seen many children who live with parents who have these issues who grow to be emotionally healthy adults. So, you have a good chance of helping your son be one of those healthy adults.

There are some important things that you must do for your son. I will outline them below so that they are clear.

Separate his father from his father’s illness. You may be doing this already, but in case you aren’t, it is important to teach your son that his father has a medical problem which causes him to be mean, rude, act out, etc., at times. Let him know that his father isn’t a bad man, but he lives with a bad illness. This helps children learn not to take their parent’s bad behaviors as personally.

Always acknowledge your son’s hurt. When your husband does something mean to your son, make sure that your son is given permission to cry or be angry. Young men get into emotional trouble when they stuff down their feelings. Eventually, the pain that is pushed down inside erupts later in life and wreaks havoc.

Encourage your son not to take his father’s behavior personally. This is terribly hard for children because their parents hold so much power over them. They are deeply hurt when a parent says something mean, even when that parent is ill. But to the best of your ability, tell your son in private that those mean words and behaviors come from his father’s illness, not because he is a bad kid. During the teen years, all teens feel responsible for what happens around them and you can’t change this. He will grow out of this, but for now, try to help him.

Tell your son that he doesn’t need to protect you. Many sons feel that they need to protect their mothers from a father’s abuse and this causes tremendous conflict inside of them. He may believe that the way to protect you involves hurting his father and this feels very, very uncomfortable for him. Because of this, it is important that you tell your son that taking care of you is not his job.

Encourage your son to be involved in the lives of other men. If you have a brother or father that your son can spend time with, make sure that he does. He needs to see what a healthy relationship is, and he also needs to see how men who are emotionally healthy behave. This is very important. As his mother, you can’t teach him how to be a good man. This is something that has to come from another man, so be sure to have him spend time with other good men.

Developmentally, your son should be starting to show signs of wanting independence by pulling away from you. He should want to do things with friends or on his own. This is normal. I write about this extensively in my book Strong Mothers, Strong Sons if you want to read more. If he pulls away and spends a lot of time alone in his room, doesn’t want to be with friends, and withdraws from everyone, he is showing signs of depression. If this is the case, take him to his doctor and have him evaluated.

You are in a difficult situation. Make sure that you find support for yourself, too. Ask a couple of close friends if you can spend time regularly with them so that you can vent to them about your difficulties. Women friends are crucial to women who are struggling with an ill spouse. You will find strength from these women to be the best mother that you can be.

Finally, I encourage you to see a counselor yourself. You can only help your son if you are feeling emotionally solid. Living with a man who has temper tantrums, depression or any other issues your husband has is very difficult. So get yourself some help. To whatever degree you are able, put up boundaries for your husband regarding his bad behavior. Having bipolar disorder is tough for him to live with but it should never be an excuse for bad behavior or for being mean.


Dr. Meg

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