This is the latest from our new column, ‘Dear Danni’, where Dannielle Miller shares tips on parenting kids aged 10+.
My ex was abusive. My daughter and I have been free from him for a few years, but now that she’s starting to date, I am terrified she will end up with a controlling, violent partner just like her dad. How can I protect her from this?
I am so glad you’re both now safe. It’s not easy to leave an abusive relationship; don’t underestimate some of the powerful lessons you may have taught your daughter about courage and resilience.
But I don’t want to patronise you by dismissing your concerns that any of the abuse your daughter witnessed may have impacted on her too.
The reality is that some children in homes where there has been abuse do show signs of post-traumatic stress, and are at an increased risk of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, self-harm and victimisation by an intimate partner.
Some of the factors that can influence how children respond include the severity of the violence, the age of the child, and other disruptors to the child’s life that the violence may have contributed to such as changing schools, or being isolated from relatives.
That’s why the choice you made to leave with your daughter as soon as you felt able to do so safely was so powerful and protective – not just for you, but for her.
I also want to acknowledge that some children develop their own coping mechanisms.
I grew up in a home where there was domestic violence. While I’m sure it has shaped me in some way (just as most of the things we experience in childhood do) I honestly don’t think it has made me more vulnerable to violent men.
In fact, I feel I have a very good radar for men who might want to control or belittle me, and can sense when violence might be able to erupt. I was a watchful child. I could feel the room shift just before a violent outburst; I learned to trust my instincts and deflect, deescalate or retreat.
Thankfully, I don’t go about life in a permanent state of vigilance anymore, but I can still sniff out abusers and know how to manage heated exchanges.
Before I give you some practical tools you can use to support your daughter to develop her respectful relationship skills too (we can all do this, we don’t need to be shaped by lived experience), I want to address something that is niggling at me about your question.
It’s something I hear from most women I work with in the domestic violence sector, and that is an underlying sense that somehow, if your daughter is impacted by the abuse she witnessed, you will be responsible for this harm.
Please know you are not. You are not. The only person responsible is the perpetrator of that abuse.
Know too that the greatest risk factor for your child experiencing abuse in her lifetime is not anything that happened in your home, but rather that fact that she was born a girl.
Domestic violence occurs across all ages, socioeconomic and demographic groups but mainly affects women (Indigenous women, young women and pregnant women are particularly at risk).
Growing girls who understand the importance of gender equality, and know what respectful relationships look and feel like, is not only vital for all our daughters, but this knowledge also functions to protect them – whether they’ve been raised in homes where there has been domestic violence, or not.
How can we best do this?
1. Banish he-likes-you-so-he-is-mean rhetoric
Sometimes, we tell girls that when a boy pushes or teases, it may only be because he has a crush on her in order to make her feel better. There may be no malicious intent, it’s not only confusing to equate abuse with affection, it’s dangerous. Love never uses its fists, nor does it withhold, try to control, or belittle.
What should we say instead? We can advise our girls that no one should make them feel unsafe or disrespected (not even someone they may like or love), and that if they do feel these things, they are wise to move away, and let someone they trust (like a parent or teacher) know they feel uncomfortable.
2. Stop expecting young women to act as modifiers for male misbehavior
So many girls have told me their teachers ask them to sit near the more disruptive boys as they think this will quieten the lads. But as one 14-year-old girl told me “these boys are just gross and it’s not fair”. She’s right, it isn’’t fair.
3. Teach your daughter to recognise gender inequality, and to know how to respond to it
For me, finding feminism as a teen girl felt very much like finding hhome. Finally, a place where I felt known, understood, accepted and challenged! I still find the sisterhood to be the most incredible source of inspiration and validation. One of the ways in which I connect young girls to feminism through my work in schools is through humour (which is a great way too of instantly debunking any “feminists can’t be fun” stereotypes). We begin by exploring what popular culture will often tell us girl-power should look like and deconstruct how the phrase has been used to sell women everything from cleaning products to super-stomach-sucking-elastic pants (irony much?). Encourage your daughter to turn her critical gaze outwards.
4. Encourage your daughter to be comfortable saying no, and setting boundaries
I’ve long argued our girls are being killed with kindness. There’s a growing trend to tell girls (and the messages promoting kindness are so often directed at young women) that if they were simply kinder, there would be less conflict in their relationships. Sounds simple, right? Too simple. We must ensure that our messaging isn’t misinterpreted as, “Be kind – no matter what.”
And make no mistake, we do still tell girls that they should be friends with people they say they really don’t like (often without even asking why they feel uncomfortable with that person), hug relatives they instinctively pull away from, and unquestioningly do as they are told.
Surely if the #metoo movement has taught us anything, it is that turning a blind eye, or trying to placate with acts of kindness, may in fact only make victims more vulnerable.
If we’re serious about stamping out relational aggression in all its forms, we need to stop thinking in trite slogans. Instead, we need to start equip both girls and boys with the skills they need to regulate their emotions, and manage conflict respectfully.
And one final note; you conclude your question to me by saying you want to protect your daughter. This is completely understandable, and admirable.
But it’s important our girls feel empowered to know how to set their own boundaries; particularly as the reality is most of their romantic relationships won’t play out under our watchful eye.
As much as we’d love to, we can’t always protect.
But we can teach – and be a safe space for our kids to return to if, and when, they need us.
If you or someone you know if in immediate danger, call 000. If you need help and advice call 1800Respect on 1800 737 732, Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Get Jugglehood in your inbox, our weekly newsletter for working parents.
Dannielle Miller is the CEO of Australia’s leading provider of in-school wellbeing programs for teens, Enlighten Education. She is also a best-selling parenting author, the Director of Education and Special Projects for Women’s Community Shelters, and is the founder of The School Toilet Project.