By Lisa Aronson Fontes, PhD
Young people learn how to interact with others by watching how their family members do the same. Abusers do not model kindness, empathy, or cooperation. They do not model calmly handling frustration. Instead, abusers model getting what they want at all costs.
“Missocialization” refers to interacting with children in ways that hurt them socially. “Missocializing” involves sending the message to children that it is okay to be aggressive, sexually exploit others, abuse substances, commit crimes, discriminate, or engage in other dangerous or immoral behaviors. Here I will discuss how abusers teach children to do the wrong thing. And what you can do about it.
Teaching Children to Do Wrong
Sometimes, abusers teach or show children to act in ways that are illegal or immoral.
Mac has abused drugs for years, even around his children. He thinks it is funny to blow marijuana smoke into his young children’s faces. He “job hops,” saying, “Only losers work more than they have to.” One day, the police signal Mac to pull over while he is driving with his children in the car. Mac hands a bag of pills to his young son and tells him to hide it under his legs. When the police drive off, Mac praises his son for his “good work.”
Here, we see Mac socializing his children to disdain work, accept drug use, and lie to the police.
Sam demeans and intimidates his wife Tabitha. He calls her names, punches walls, curses, and yells at her. The children are watching. Tabitha calls her local domestic abuse agency when she hears her son calling his sister the exact same name that Sam calls her.
Sam is teaching his son to use abusive language and express his anger violently, especially toward women and girls.
Teaching Children to Lie
Abusers tend to lie a lot. They lie over large and small matters, to get the upper hand. They lie to confuse and take advantage of victim-survivors. They lie to cover up their abuse. Sometimes they lie just because they enjoy deceiving those around them.
Carrie teaches her children to lie to their father, Bert. She rehearses with them what they should say about where they have been and what they have done. She makes it seem like a game, like they are all in on a secret plot and Bert is the enemy.
John pressures the children to tell the Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) that they prefer staying at his house over their mother’s, which is not true. This coaching becomes clear when the GAL asks the 6-year-old what she likes better about her father’s house. Their little daughter replies, “Let me go ask my dad what I should say.”
After the divorce, one day María hears her son, Mateo, saying something again and again, in the bathroom. Upon questioning, María asks Mateo’s older sister, Carla, what is going on. Carla says that their father is preparing them to make claims of child abuse against María. She says their father asked Mateo to rehearse the script, since he does not speak English well yet.
An adult who teaches a child to lie is harming that child.
Teaching Children to Hate People from Other Groups
Experts agree that teaching children to hate specific groups of people is bad parenting. Some even think it is a form of child abuse. Modeling inter-group hate to a child is not in the best interests of that child.
Hank mocks Black people and demeans African American culture and leaders, in front of his children.
Against his wife’s wishes, Mahmoud is training their children to think of nonbelievers as “Infidels.” Mahmoud tells their children that while Islam is holy, “Everything else is the devil.” The children are now afraid to play with non-Muslim children.
Research shows that hatred of people from different groups often goes hand-in-hand with violence against women. In fact, most people who perpetrate mass killings are men who have also attacked their own family. Abusers see the world as made up of winners and losers. They strive to dominate their partners and also people from other groups. They teach their children to hate.
How can you counter an abuser’s missocialization? You can model and discuss more positive ways to act. Here are some suggestions:
- Model the kinds of behaviors you want to see. Show your children how to resolve conflict through words and not blows. Teach them to admit to mistakes, and to apologize. Model for them how to set firm, clear boundaries. Model for them how to stay calm when angry.
- Teach your children to be open-minded about people from other religions, races, sexual orientations, and cultures. Diversify both your friend group and theirs.
- Discuss your values. Speak to them about what matters to you. Engage in pro-social efforts such as volunteering and nurturing friendships.
- Create community: surround your family with people who care about you and share your values. If children have several role models, they are less likely to model themselves on the abuser.
- Listen to your children’s concerns. What are their worries and confusions? You may not be able to “solve” them, but at least you can show that you are listening and that you care.
- Speak with your children. You should avoid badmouthing the other parent. But it is still okay to state how you feel about certain behaviors. For example: “It is not right to lie.” “I can hear you better when you speak than when you yell.” “You can tell who loves you by how they act, not what they say.”
Socializing children positively will make them less likely to copy an abusers’ bad behavior. We need to teach children to operate in society and live peacefully among others, regardless of how an abuser might act.