Ask Dr. Christina: How Do I Stop My Husband From Emotionally Abusing and Bullying My Children?

Dear Dr. Christina,

I separated from my husband 3 years ago. I am finding that the more my kids are around him, and especially when they come home from being with him, they are not the same as when I dropped them off, especially my oldest. They are very reserved and quiet, and seem like they have been kicked to the ground. I have sat down with my oldest son, who is 16, and asked him what is wrong. At first he kept telling me nothing; but one day I went into his room after they had been dropped off, and he was just sitting there balling and sobbing. I sat down next to him and asked him what was wrong.

He finally told me that when he is at his dad’s, his dad constantly tells him that he is such a disappointment and that he cannot do anything right. He said his dad asked him about his grades. My son told him what they were and tried to explain that he was working on them the best he could. He said his dad told him he will constantly be a failure and that until he proves to him otherwise, he will not think of him any differently.

I think this is really pulling my son down, and he is really taking it to heart. I try to lift his spirits up every single day, but it has gotten to the point where his dad is telling him that he is not going to be able to play sports if he doesn’t change his attitude and his grades.

I don’t feel any child should be taken out of sports or the things they love, especially if he is trying to improve his grades. His grades are not even that bad, and he still is eligible to play according to school policy. Can you please help me and let me know if I am just wrong and whether this is just a part of growing up for my son to work through? I just do not want my son’s feelings to get hurt or for this to impact him later in life.


Dear Shel,

First, I would like to thank you for writing to me, for this situation seems to be happening a lot these days. You may want to know that your letter may not only help you, but also others who are in similar circumstances.  A parent’s negative behavior or actions or saying hurtful things to their children can occur with even the best of parents. When this goes on persistently or becomes a chronic pattern, even when done with the best intentions, it can be considered emotional abuse, which is a form of child abuse.

There are many types of child abuse:

1)    Physical/Sexual

2)    Emotional

3)    Neglect

Emotional abuse can affect a child’s emotional, psychological, social and cognitive development, which can cause the child confusion as to who they are. It can also have a lasting effect and create emotional scars. Oftentimes, it is difficult to detect because there are no physical scars to see, but emotional abuse can often be more damaging.

What does this type of abuse look like to a child?

1)    Verbal—shameful words, belittling words, making fun of a weakness or pointing out only their mistakes.

2)    Rejection/Ignoring—people are refusing to speak to them or touch them.

3)    Lonesome/Isolation—children are unable to participate in normal school functions or play with their siblings.

4)    Terrorizing—when unrealistic expectations are put on a child where they feel bullied or threatened.

5)    Neglect—being indifferent to a child’s basic needs (physical/mental) and/or leaving them alone.

Shel, as you can see, if this type of behavior is not corrected by your husband, and if your child does not have an understanding of what is going on, this can lead to problems in your child’s behaviors in the future such as:

1)    Low self-esteem

2)    Anger issues because he has suppressed his feelings or lack of feelings for a long time.

3)    Withdrawal as a result of his belief in his father’s negative beliefs about him. This may be compounded by your son’s own beliefs that something is wrong with him or that he is doing something wrong.

4)    Anxiety

5)    Insecurities in his ability to do things

6)    Problems with future relationships

7)    Inappropriate and self-destructive behaviors (drugs/suicide)

Shel, the fact that you zoomed in and noticed that something was not right with your son was fantastic. You took the time and persisted with your investigation, which enabled your son to reveal to you what was really going on. You showed your love and acceptance of your child, offering him a beacon of light and a different perspective of himself. The fact that you allowed for communication to occur between your son and you was something that was drastically needed to derail the destructive behaviors of your husband toward your son. The outpouring of his tears and his ability to speak up and express himself to you are extremely important. Your child needs the consistency, reliability, and stability of someone he can talk to. Yes, discipline is needed for his grades, but as you said, let it be realistic. The rules are needed to not only improve his grades, but should also give your child’s self-esteem a boost.

If you are on speaking terms with your husband, give him the benefit of the doubt. He may not realize how piercing his words are. You can communicate to him what you see happening with your son and perhaps schedule a meeting with him. If he will not be cooperative, then you may want to get a family counselor involved or perhaps a school counselor. If this is something your husband won’t do, and in many cases this is what happens, then you may want to talk with your son about the reason why his dad may be the way he is as a result of how he was once treated as a kid. The tragedy of emotional abuse is that when this happens to them as children, this is what they learn about parenting. When these children then become parents, they inevitably and oftentimes unknowingly continue the cycle of abuse.

Shel, the saving grace here is you and your love of not only your oldest son but of all of your children. In your situation, there is one parent that is so invested in being a good parent that when you see something that’s not right, you want to improve the situation for your children.

I am so proud of you and your son. Keep being vigilant and keep doing your best to prevent your son from suffering the damages that could potentially be caused by your husband, including losing his sense of self. Your son will know that there are still people he can truly trust and who have a vested interest in him, because of you. Your son does not have to stuff his feelings down and he will know that there is an outlet for him—which is provided by you.

Shel, you as the protective mother, may have just saved your son, for you made your voice speak for your child’s lost voice.

Please keep in touch. My thoughts of peace will be for you and your family always.

Dr. Christina

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