The article Fragmented Child: Disorganized Attachment and Dissociation by Robert T. Muller Ph.D describes how abuse can destroy a child’s sense of self, and cause them to seek refuge from a painful reality by dissociating.

The “Fragmented Child” article was very helpful to me to identify many of the symptoms I have seen in my own children; I am sharing a link to this article along with some of my own experiences to raise awareness about the effects of abuse on children. I also feel a purpose in sharing my story to illustrate the devastating impact of family court rulings that place children in the care and custody of an abusive or unfit parent – much of the harm inflicted on my children could have been prevented if the family court had protected them from abuse.

What is Dissociation?

In “Fragmented Child”, Muller describes dissociation and its cause. The “fragmented child” is one who uses dissociation as a defense mechanism to deal with a stressful, traumatic or abusive situation.

Muller says about dissociation,“As a way of coping, dissociation occurs when the brain compartmentalizes traumatic experiences to keep people from feeling too much pain, be it physical, emotional, or both. When dissociation occurs, you experience a detachment from reality, like ‘spacing out.’ Part of you just isn’t ‘there in the moment.’” Children who grow up in an abusive homes often dissociate because they can not handle the trauma, pain and/or dysfunctional environment.

Dissociation happens when there is a trauma or assault, our first instinct is to go into “fight or flight” mode. When there is no escape, the flight is taken into the mind – away from a present danger. Dissociation is a defense mechanism where a person separates from their memory something they do not want to deal with. There is a range of mild dissociation to full blown dissociative identity disorder (separating a part of yourself from memory). Amnesia may occur with dissociation because the mind is shutting out or erasing a painful reality.

Through dissociation, memory of the trauma is held within fragmented parts of the mind. The trauma causes the mind to break or split off into smaller pieces that make it easier to process what has occurred. Over time those fragments may form their own distinct parts or identities. Triggers or memories of trauma release the memories which emerge (this occurs in a variety of ways).

People who experience dissociation commonly report feeling numb, spaced out, may have amnesia, and feel disconnected. A dissociative disorder changes the way a person sees reality and impairs memory, consciousness and a person’s sense of identity.

For more info on Dissociative Disorders please visit: Dissociative disorders (by Mind for Better Mental Health(

Understanding the Dissociative Disorders by Marlene Steinberg, M.D.

Public Domain: http://absfreepic.com

The Devastating Impact – When Courts Order Children into the Custody of Abusers: What I Have Seen in my own Children

My children are victims of abuse who have been further traumatized when the family court gave sole custody to the identified abuser. My children suffer from debilitating psychological, behavioral and social problems as a result of the abuse. My children have had their childhood stolen from them.

It is distressing to realize that your children are coping with a dysfunctional home environment by dissociating, and that your efforts to protect your children are being challenged, and prevented, by the family court system. Filing protective orders or asking for a change of custody based on abuse or endangerment has resulted in reprieve, and punishment from the courts (financial sanctions, loss of visitation and/or custody, ordered into supervised visitation, gag orders, jail are all common forms courts punish protective parents). Seeking therapy and professional help for my family has resulted in me being accused of harming my children, being told I need to “co-parent” better and otherwise being told my concerns of abuse, and the supporting documentation I offer, is not credible. My legal rights have also been violated in the court process. I am told to stay silent, stop raising concerns, be a more “cooperative” parent. No parent should be asked to enable the abuse of their own children.

I have seen the following indicators of dissociation present in my own children:

1) Talking to my children, they are sometimes triggered or can not deal with a difficult emotion, their response is a blank face (emotionless) and silence. The tone of voice may sound monotone. Or their mood may not match the current situation or the prevalent emotions of the day (for example, it’s a birthday party, everyone is happy but the children are silent and withdrawn).

2) The child withdraws into their own world – retreating into distractions, video games or computer time, imagination or an intense interest that draws their attention away from the present and into an inner world. The interest dominates the child’s focus, and they have trouble staying emotionally regulated without it.

3) After a long separation from my child, I am finally able to reconnect or have some contact with the children. I am overjoyed, and emotional. The child appears detached, appears emotionless, eyes are blank, voice is flat and mood is somber or withdrawn. At times a glimmer of my child once was will appear. Maybe I will get an unexpected hug. Or my child will create a card or picture for me, showing love or affection. It is confusing to see the dramatic changes – the conflicting closeness followed by the coldness, some children reject the targeted parent entirely.

4) The child is reminded or triggered by a memory of past trauma or abuse, and they freeze or lock up. They are unable to talk or move – sometimes they blank out. Other times they are aware of what is happening around them but unable to move or interact with their environment. Amnesia often follows these events. Or the child is unable to identify how they are feeling or what they are thinking.

5) When the child is overwhelmed by memories of trauma or abuse, they have violent or intense tantrums. Often there is very little or no memory of the tantrums. They may fall asleep after the tantrum due to exhaustion. There may be physical or emotional signs of dissociation that is associated with the onset of the tantrums – regressive behavior, mood swings, a drastic change in facial expression or appearance (this is an emotional change), banging their head on the wall, etc

Other signs of dissociation in children may include: Memory loss, inability to concentrate or focus, hyperactivity, mood swings, nightmares, a flat or monotone voice, appearing weak or lethargic, anxiety, and changes in personality.

When Family Court Professionals Fail to Recognize the Impact of Abuse on Children

The judges, Guardian ad Litem, evaluator, attorney for my abusive ex and other family court professionals working with my children, etc who do not understand the effects of abuse and trauma on children, commonly assign blame to one parent for causing reported behavioral and emotional problems in a child. Other times the court will deny any problem exists with the children (this happens even when there is ample evidence and documentation) and falsely accuse the targeted parent of having some kind of mental illness that causes a parent to report abuse and seek help for this child. In this way, victims of abuse are not being protected by the family court, and are being re-victimized.

Where there is no safety for children, some have chosen to escape the abuse, pain and ugly world they live in through dissociation.

— EJ, May 2016

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As many as 10 million children per year witness or are caught in the middle of domestic violence. Domestic violence, and the resulting trauma, has a profound effect on a child’s physical, emotional, behavioral and social health. Children who have witnessed or experienced domestic violence commonly suffer from: anxiety, depression, social withdrawal, nightmares, flashbacks and feelings of guilt/remorse.

A relationship with a stable, caring adult is one of the most important factors in a child’s recovery from abuse or trauma, and can help to break the cycle of violence.

Some tips on how you can best support an abused child, and be a positive role model :

*** If you are working as a mentor, “Big Brother/Sister”, peer support, spiritual support, advocate or family/friend to this child, be consistent in scheduling regular visits. Don’t over commit your time then miss a visit. Don’t schedule a large number of visits then decrease the visits unexpectedly. Consistency is crucial to a child’s sense of safety—so schedule visits on a regular basis that is realistic to what you can offer, and what your time/energy allows for. Then put those visits on a calendar so the child knows what to expect, and can plan for your visit.

*** Working with an abused child can be triggering, exhausting or very emotional for the support person—so make sure you are caring for your own physical and emotional needs. This may involve a “check-in” with your supervisor. Or taking classes or attending support groups with the organization you are working for. Or it may involve self-care such as taking a walk/exercise, listening to music, reading, enjoying a hobby etc. If you feel the need to talk about your day, keep the privacy of those you are working with—do not reveal their real name or sensitive personal information about their case or family situation. If there is an urgent issue, go to a supervisor for help, if there is no supervisor you may consider calling a domestic violence shelter for advice or calling 911 in an emergency or if you feel the child’s life is in danger.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline for victims is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), 1-800-787-3224 (TTY) or http://www.thehotline.org. Information about local is also available through the hotline.
NATIONAL CHILD ABUSE HOTLINE: 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453)
Crisis Counselors Available 24/7 or http://www.childhelp.org/

*** Use community resources as needed, this may include children’s support groups for victims of abuse, parenting classes, religious/spiritual support, food shelves, housing support, case management etc.
A good place to find resources is United Way 211: http://www.211.org/

*** Creating a welcoming, child-friendly environment will reduce anxiety and help foster trust. This may include offering toys, books or games (that are non-violent). Opening a window to allow sunlight in the room. Including pets in the visit. Greeting the child in a way that is comfortable to them—soft voice, smile, avoiding direct eye contact, calling them by a preferred nickname etc (you will learn these over time, as your relationship grows). Or being sensitive to cultural needs. Be consistent in your routine. Allow the child choices. And be open to trying new things, in a creative way.

*** Listen with an open, neutral ear. Refrain from judgment, shame or blame. Be open to hearing the child’s unique way of expressing themselves– their voice may not come out in a direct conversation but may be revealed in a game, in playing with toys, relating to a song or art/drawing a picture etc.

*** Domestic violence and trauma can affect a child’s mood, behavior and ability to socialize. If needed, develop a “safety plan” with the child, their parent(s) and therapist to address behavioral problems if they arise. Work with parent(s) and care providers to become aware of the child’s emotional or behavioral issues, their triggers so you can better meet the child’s needs.

*** “Kids Helping Kids: A Guide for Children Exposed to Domestic Violence” by Mental Health Programs, BC Children’s Hospital is a valuable resource and support for kids, parent(s) and caregivers.
“Kids Helping Kids” offers testimonies about domestic violence told by children in stories and pictures, which validates to children that they are not alone, and the feelings they have are okay.
“Kids Helping Kids” offers tips on how to support abused children, and gives general advise on commonly available community resources. It also offers child-friendly tips on how to talk to children about their feelings and the changes happening in their family.
I highly recommend “Kids Helping Kids” – it’s written in child-friendly manner to educate children about abuse and help prepare them to cope with the trauma, and the changes occurring in their family (which may include out of home placement or court involvement).

Any more tips? Please share your thoughts, resources or links in the comments box!

For More Information and Tips:

“Helping Children Exposed to Domestic Violence”. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, “Facts for Families Pages”, #109, April 2013: http://www.aacap.org/aacap/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/Facts_for_Families_Pages/Helping_Children_Exposed_to_Domestic_Violence_109.aspx

“Honor Our Voices: A for Practice When Responding to Children Exposed to Domestic Violence.” Presented by MINCAVA, Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare and Avon Foundation for Women: http://www.honorourvoices.org/docs/GuideforPractice.pdf

“How Can I Help a Child Exposed to Domestic Violence?”. National Online Resources Center on Violence Against Women, Casey Keene, 1/2/2013: http://www.vawnet.org/news/2013/01/child_exposed/

“Kids Helping Kids: A Guide for Children Exposed to Domestic Violence” by Mental Health Programs, BC Children’s Hospital:
http://bcsth.ca/sites/default/files/Kids%20Helping%20Kids.pdf