I Was Abused as a Child. How Do I Deal With This as a Parent?

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The Sweet Spot

This column is an edited excerpt from the “Dear Sugars” podcast, an advice program hosted by Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed. The audio contains an extended conversation and more letters. If you’re reading this on desktop, click the play button below to listen. Mobile readers can find “Dear Sugars” on the Podcasts app (iPhone and iPad) or Radio Public (Android and tablet).

Dear Sugars,

I made a mistake. My daughter is 10 and has been a raging ball of hormones lately. During one of her daily “You don’t understand me and how hard my life is!” tantrums, I yelled, out of sheer exhaustion: “You don’t know a hard life! When I was your age, my stepdad used to hit me and touch me inappropriately.” I regretted it immediately and left the room. I told my husband what I had said, and he thought I should talk to her about it. I didn’t. I chose to do what people always did to me, and I pretended it didn’t happen.

I haven’t stopped thinking about what I said. I know she probably thinks about it. I have had my eyes wide open her whole life, in the attempt to make sure what happened to me doesn’t happen to her, and somehow by yelling that at her, I brought that garbage into her life anyway. Do I talk to her now? Do I wait? Do I say nothing?

Mom With Foot in Her Mouth

Cheryl Strayed: You didn’t bring that garbage into your daughter’s life, Mom. Your daughter is not being abused the way you were. Your vigilance and love for her are going to be the things she carries with her most deeply, not this one angry outburst, so please don’t beat yourself up. Obviously, it’s not ideal that your sad revelation came out in this manner, but we don’t often live in the ideal. You know that, and your daughter does too.

Steve Almond: One thing that might help is to take a more forgiving view of the entire situation. Maybe you needed to tell your daughter about these experiences. Maybe you weren’t just castigating her, but trying to send the message that you understand how bereft and mixed up and out of control she sometimes feels. Because in your household, growing up, things were literally out of your control.

CS: I’ve had the same kind of interaction with my own kids, and they were much younger than 10. In an angry and exhausted moment, when they were misbehaving, I yelled: “You know what would have happened to me as a kid if I were acting like you’re acting? My father would have smacked me!” Like you, I immediately regretted it. But soon, I came to see that this outburst started a necessary conversation between us about my life and about some of the darker, more complex realities of the world. One of our toughest jobs as parents is to talk to our kids about abuse, violence and sexual assault. We don’t want those things to exist, but for their own protection, our children need to learn that they do. It’s also important for our children to know that we, as parents, are human and therefore flawed. You’re not perfect. Your daughter isn’t either. She needs to see how you deal with the consequences of your anger. In addressing this honestly, you’ll be modeling for her how one makes amends for words one regrets. You’ll be offering her a powerful lesson that will serve her for the rest of her life.

SA: I never endured the kind of abusive behavior that you and Cheryl did, Mom. But I’ve said plenty of things to my kids in frustration — check that, I’ve hollered plenty of things — that I wish I could take back. The thing to remember is that kids are more resilient than we realize. They deal with intense emotion all the time, as your daughter shows you every day. What matters isn’t that we yell at our kids, but what we do afterward. Do we make some attempt to repair the rift, to acknowledge what happened and why we got so angry, to apologize, to clarify, to demystify? The central mystery kids are trying to solve is the mystery of who their parents actually are. How did we get to be the way we are? When we hide aspects of ourselves, and in particular painful aspects, we keep children from solving that mystery. When we don’t allow them access to our inner lives — our vulnerability, our ghosts, the sources of our sorrow and sudden rage — we become more confusing (and therefore frightening) to them. The lesson they learn is that their own painful experiences and emotions should be suppressed, the very lesson you learned as a kid.

CS: That’s the lesson to unlearn here: the one in which your family refused to talk to you about all the most important stuff. Please, Mom, discuss this with your daughter! It’ll probably feel uncomfortable at first, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that you don’t repeat a negative pattern of silence and denial. Teach your daughter instead that we have the capacity to talk about the hardest things. You’re right that she’s thinking about this, and you’re also right that it’s time for her to know the truth. With you as her guide, she’s strong enough to handle it.

SA: What Cheryl’s getting at here is crucial. Trust yourself to be able to talk with your daughter about these experiences. But also trust her. You have to trust that underneath her emotional riot is a kid willing, and probably eager, to listen, one who needs to know that you understand her most dire feelings and can handle them. When parents offer true emotional honesty, kids show up.

CS: Even though my kids were younger than your daughter is now, Mom, when I told them about my experiences with my father, they listened. They understood. And they also understood when I told them a few years later that I’d been sexually abused as a kid. These conversations haven’t ended. They’ve evolved over time, as my children grow up and have a deeper capacity to comprehend more complex facts of our human existence. They’re essential conversations for all of us to have, at any age. Have them with your daughter. Now. I know you can.