"Congratulations, you just broke your child."

We were three from the front now, and the boy started to come towards his dad yet again. His dad immediately stepped out of the line, jammed his fingers into his son’s collar bones until he winced in pain, and threatened him. “If you so much as make a sound or come off of that wall again, I promise you’re going to get it when we get home.” The boy again cowered against the wall. This time, he didn’t move. He didn’t make a sound. His beautiful face pointed down, locked to the floor and expressionless. He had been broken.

This post by Dan Pearce, though written nearly a year ago, was recently shared by a fellow survivor on a list-serv, to encourage us all that, yes, people do sometimes notice the abuse. People do recognize how other so-called parents thoroughly fuck up their children.

This so-called “father” broke his child’s spirit through thorough psychological abuse. It leaves a deep and lasting scar far more painful than the finger in the collarbone.

And it awakened feelings of fear and sadness in me.

Some people are great parents right off the bat. Some people need extra help. Survivors of child abuse grew up with horrible parenting examples, and so many of us reach out for advice on the listserv, because we want to do right by our children.

And some people have no business around children. Like this “father” at the Costco.

It was the sort of thing my dad did/does. Except my dad put on his best face in the public for appearances’ sake (we did too, even if we were fearful). In the car, in a private room, or at home, he would do things like this. It breaks the child’s spirit. This is psychological abuse.

It takes a few years for children to be thoroughly broken, because young children expect their parents to be parents, and keep trying again, like this kid did, but soon they will soon learn to walk on eggshells for fear of accidentally “setting” dad (or mom) off again.

I’m trying to recall the exact age my siblings learned to walk on eggshells. Or when I learned. They just sort of learned, slowly, by Mom’s, Cameron, and my examples, that we have to be afraid of Dad. We would work together to protect the little ones from the worst of his wrath. “Dad’s in a bad mood–we need to play extremely quietly.” “Dad’s in a bad mood. Let’s go for a walk and leave him alone.” “Dad’s in a bad mood, so let’s stay in our rooms and play.” because we knew that if the little ones trotted up to dad, wanting love and him to read them books, he would rage at them, and often find some sort of fault (like talking too loudly) to spank them and punish them and ground them.

That’s not to say that dad never was a father.  He did sometimes do what fathers should do. Read books, play catch, and so on. Sometimes he was almost…normal. We relished those times. We knew it wouldn’t last, that in a couple of hours or the next day he would be what we described as  “tense”, and then he would blow up again. By “tense,” I mean that he was very irritable, and you just knew his emotions was like a rubber band slowly being stretched out until it snaps irrationally.

I would say my siblings slowly learned how to protect themselves very early. Especially from age 3 on.

I think this is a large part of where my grief comes from. I grew up when Cameron and I would protect each other. We would be glad if we weren’t being punished, but sad the other one was. Then when the little ones, my four little siblings, came along, we both worked to protect the little ones using our hard-won skills, trying to teach them how to protect themselves, teach them the little sense we were able to make of dad’s “moods.”

I grieve because I am no longer there, to be able to protect them, to try to take the brunt of the punishments off of them. I grieve because I can no longer give them love and reassurance after dad flies off the handle at them, letting them know they actually did nothing wrong. Like when Anna accidentally broke a bowl–I tried to take dad’s rage, and then quietly, when she was grounded, went into her room and pulled her onto my lap and held her for a while. Like when Tommy couldn’t hear at the Scouts meeting, I tried to blunt the blow. Like when Joey insisted on making monkey responses even though Dad sometimes punished him for not speaking English, I would still try to talk with Joey in monkey-speak. Like when Cameron and I tried to teach Betsy to do a good job with the sweeping just so dad wouldn’t punish her for missing a crumb.

I just hope that I did give them a little bit of inoculation with the oh-so-little love and protection I did give them. I hope I gave them some tools they can use to parent themselves in face of dad’s wildly inconsistent (but mostly angry) moods. My counselor in the past thought that I might have helped them. I hope so. I hope they can escape, and hopefully they will be mostly whole and safe, and not have too many psychological scars.

I hope the child in the story can, too. It sounds heartbreakingly familiar.

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