The following questions have come from concerned parents. We thank Liz Mullinar for taking the time to respond and assist us with providing this information.
Q I have been forced by the court to hand my child over for access visits with my ex who is sexually / physically abusing her. How can I minimize or counter her distress and the effects of this?
I believe the detrimental long term effects of trauma which can be created by physical or sexual abuse are ameliorated and in many cases prevented if the child is comforted and held by the prime carer and allowed to express their fear. You need your child to know by the fact that you hold him/her and comfort her/him that you love them and wish you could stop the pain happening.. If you, the mother hold your child and listen and let them express their feelings unbelievably there will be far less long term effect. More importantly your child will trust you. Can you imagine what it feels like to a little child if you just pretend everything is Ok or try to say it's Ok Daddy loves you really. What sort of a message does that give to a small child? A child up until about the age of nine is narcissistic, in other words they believe they are responsible for anything bad that happens around them so if they are being abused and mum ignores it then the child will blame themselves and feel "I must be bad" and mum doesn't care and lets it happen. By helping them express how they feel, particularly when they are very small it is my belief from years of working with adults and teenagers recovering from being abused you will help them in the long term.
The greatest effect of trauma is when the child is not able to express how they feel after it has happened. If this happens then the emotion is suppressed and revisits the person later in life as flashbacks, nightmares, somatic memories and in a mass of other ways. The overriding feeling is "I am worthless" "I am bad" because abuse happened to me and no one stopped it. By you the mother comforting them they will know you do care.
In my experience from 13 years of working with survivors the greatest pain is not the actual abuse but the absence of a caring response from their mum. I believe we don't see people at Mayumarri where there was a caring response because they are able to recover from the trauma and are able to release the emotions suppressed while the abuse was happening so later in life there are no long term effects to heal from. The child may express more anger pain frustration by this method but that is much healthier than suppressing such feelings.
Q Whenever I talk to my child on the phone while she is at my ex's house for an access visit, she cries and begs me to come and get her. I can't due to court orders so how do I comfort her and reduce her stress?
All you can do is tell her that the court says she must stay and that we all have to obey the law. Suggest she breathes slowly and get her to imagine something nice and comforting.try to breathe in time with her to lower her anxiety level. I believe she needs to understand you would come if you could and that you love her. Don't say anything about the ex as that will not help the situation.
Q My child is forced to have access visits with my ex. My child hates it and begs me not to take him. What is the best way to handle this?
To say firmly the court has made the decision and no one can break the law. As they get older you can tell them when they grow up they can change the law and that you are trying to change the law but it takes time.
Q Is there any recommended reading for me / my child?
There are a series of very good books about feelings one book is one fear one on anger etc. They are Australian and help a child know to feel is Ok. It is very important that the child is allowed to know feeling is Ok and to release feelings is much healthier than holding on to them. Long term damage is caused by my anecdotal knowledge by the suppression of feelings and the lack of acknowledgment of the emotional pain a child is suffering. Most of our feelings of worthlessness as an adult come from the fact that no one seemed to notice or care when we were being abused. Peter Levine has written some great books on healing children from trauma. There a mass of book on effects of trauma on the brain which will help you understand what happens to the development of the brain if a child suffers from trauma.
Written by Liz Mullinar AM, herself a survivor of child abuse. Founder of Mayumarri healing centres www.mayumarri.com.au
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