This is the sequel to last month’s newsletter: A Mother’s Battle with a Narcissist. If you missed it you can read it here before continuing with Sarah’s story below.

I’m grateful to all who responded to help me with ‘the lies’. It’s always lovely to hear from readers of my newsletters and I understand the lying a little better now, so I’ll have more empathy with clients suffering with this in the future.

The social worker’s report

The papers Sarah sent me include a S37 report so the judge must have been pretty worried about Julian (11) and Sarah (9), or a S7 report would have been ordered. Unfortunately, social services appear to have been no better then than they are now (although my memory is that they generally were).

The children were interviewed at home, which would not have helped them to be truthful about the situation. Julian explained that there was hostility and continual arguments between his parents, but said he had never witnessed any violence between them. He was slightly critical of his mother, but said he was very close to his father, although he loved both of his parents.

Sarah has found a letter she wrote to her mother when she was younger:
And another one presumably written about this time, showing a complete change of attitude:
Sarah told the social worker that she loved her mother, but not as much as her father, and she strongly felt her mother should not shout at her father. She blamed her mother for the many arguments and admitted hitting her mother which she explained as disobedience due to the arguments.

Strangely, it does not appear that Jay was interviewed by the social worker – usually the narcissistic parent is quickly able to manipulate the professional to their point of view, but in this case it seems that Jay had been able to get the children to do this for him. Jay also failed to attend a child care conference despite saying he would be there.

The social worker concluded that the children were not suffering or likely to suffer significant harm and the main concern was ‘the very difficult and complex relationship the parents have with each other’. Clearly the term ‘parental conflict’ had not been coined by then but, as now, the abuse was not recognised.

The report goes on to say that ‘the children have presented as bright, confident and show no indications of serious distress. Both children have thrived despite the acrimonious and difficult parental relationship’.

The family was referred for family therapy but, needless to say, that did not work well or last long.

The children’s lies

Sarah says that, as adults, she and her brother can testify to Jay’s abuse of their mother, and of them as children. I was struck by the fact that both children had lied to the social worker and when I asked Sarah about this she told me they didn’t conspire to lie yet both falsely claimed their father was not abusive. Sarah said “I know I didn’t trust adults and dad made it clear that mum was saying things against him that he didn’t agree with, and that we’d have to talk to someone. It was impossible to trust adults when your parent is manipulative so their presence felt alien. I wanted to say what would make them go away.”

The children were frightened of their father’s temper and had experienced his violence to their mother so told the social worker how wonderful he was.

They also lied at school about what was and wasn’t happening at home and both schools gave the social worker glowing reports of the children. We think of children acting out and expect that people will be able to tell by their bad behaviour if they have a problem, but many children stay under the radar by behaving impeccably. The only clue in the school report was that Sarah’s concentration was poor.

Sarah explains: “Because my brother and I were both above average students, when school slipped we were still above average or the work was acceptable enough for them to believe the problem was with our attention and not with our home life. I felt the failures were mine so when questioned my response was about how I should be doing better at school, not an explanation of a troubling home life. I’d make a lot of jokes to try and disarm and deflect conversations but I rarely talked about myself or experiences.”

It would appear that the judge favoured the children’s version over their mother’s and did not award Carol custody. She therefore remained in the house as she would have lost her children if she had left but, unsurprisingly, fell into a state of depression.

Sarah says: “The social worker’s report is shameful. I would hope they wouldn’t make judgements based on our report as children, but that’s what happened.”

Alienating the children from their mother

Sarah remembers Jay being physically and verbally abusive and experienced Jay abusing Carol. Eventually, both children too became physically and verbally abusive to their mother and started acting out to win their father’s approval. Carol highlighted an incident where Julian even hit her with a stick.

Sarah says: “I know dad did everything he could to control and manipulate my mum and he taught me as a child to be abusive to her. I found a home video where I’m recording her while I bullied her and called her names.  It’s just horrible to think about how that was normalised and the hardest part is not being able to ask for her forgiveness. My mum was a wonderful person who did everything for us as children. She filled us with love and was a kind caring person. Once she got sick everything fell to pieces and dad tried to pick up the slack, but his idea of spending time with us was taking us to his hobbies like his tennis club or having us wait in the car while he went to the pub; he didn’t care about doing things we wanted to do or getting to know us.”

Children do what their parents show and tell them. Moreover, children with an abusive parent adapt their behaviour in order to survive. Sarah and Julian had to work out how to protect themselves from their father, and abusing their mother would have been a way of getting a lot of brownie points with him thus making themselves safer for a while. No matter how terribly they behave, it is never the fault of the child in these situations.

Favouring one child over the other

A narcissist will almost always favour one child: the golden child. In this case it was Julian and Sarah was the scapegoat. It’s not always consistent though and the children may swap roles from time to time, or even frequently. Sarah has told me that she has eventually done better professionally than her brother and Jay now favours her. Both roles are damaging for a child, albeit in slightly different ways.

Sarah would have been desperate for her father’s approval as she would have known her brother was his favourite, and children go to amazing lengths to gain a parent’s approval which is another explanation for her abuse of her mother.

When Sarah was a few years older, Jay often fought with his daughter, regularly threatening to throw her out of the home if she didn’t abide by his rules. Julian never tried to protect his sister because their father created a culture of abuse.

Fortunately Julian didn’t abuse his sister though, which does sometimes happen.

Using the children against their mother

Jay got Sarah to steal her mother’s papers for him. These included her personal letters and printed affidavit which she gave to her father prior to the court case so he could use them against Carol.

Jay read Carol’s affidavit out loud to his children while accusing her of lying, in an effort to manipulate them. To win their favour in the lead up to the court case he also spoiled the children with numerous gifts, convincing them that their mum was trying to split up the family.

In her letters Carol writes that Sarah is acting out against her, has started stealing personal items without asking, and is being physically and verbally abusive; she would threaten and then run away from her mother in public places, causing her no end of stress.

The effect of narcissistic abuse and coercive control on the children

Sarah says: “I had so many questions growing up and it was hard to understand what was going on. We learned as children not to be vulnerable because he would attack us, so our conversations became surface level. We’d show up and eat dinner but avoid conversations that risked us getting hurt. My dad created a culture of fear and we had to live out his narrative. He used his relationships to distance everyone from my mum when she needed support the most and so we had no support network from family or friends either. The first time I felt safe was when I was moved out of home and I was allowed to just be myself for the first time.”

Children growing up with an abusive parent who is trying to alienate them from their other parent can suffer terrible confusion. Although the advice to parents is always not to say detrimental things about the other parent, sometimes it’s necessary to explain to children what is, and what is not, acceptable behaviour in order to help them make some sense of the incomprehensible. Silence can be more damaging than the truth expressed the right way. Dr Richard Warshak  has produced ‘The Warshak Test’  (click here for details) to help the protective parent ‘when kids need to know bad things about a parent’. I’m sure Sarah would have been helped if her mother had been able to do this, but sadly Carol was in no state to be able to do so.

Four or five years after the court proceedings, when she was 14 or 15 years old, Sarah was moved out of the family home by social services after she had started self-harming and threatening suicide. On another occasion the police were called because Sarah stayed out late and Jay reported her missing. After the police left Jay hit Sarah but she reported it to her school councillor who moved her out of the home and for several months she stayed with a school friend’s family who lived across the road.

Sarah says: “My dad was very aware of how to push our buttons without going over the line. He’d pull my hair or grab my face and wake us up in the middle of the night to tidy the house because he was angry it wasn’t clean. I was grateful when he crossed the line because I could then use it as leverage to leave the house.

I had a social worker, psychiatrist and counsellor and I wasn’t able to talk to any of them about dad because when you grow up without vulnerability it’s an impossible concept. You’re asking a child to suddenly operate in a way they never have before. It sounds conflicting but I didn’t know I deserved better or that dad’s behaviour was as big a problem, but I was also trying to escape from it.

I enjoyed time outside of the house so I wouldn’t come home and he’d try and exert more control and I’d avoid him. I wouldn’t fight, I just became more aloof to avoid his temper and less communicative but I was rebelling in a way. I left home at 16 because he said I had to abide by his rules or I’d be out so I made my peace with leaving. I didn’t have my own bedroom because mum was sharing with me, so the situation wasn’t appropriate for a growing teenager. Not having my own room at home felt like I didn’t have much to leave.”

Sarah moved out of the family home permanently and dropped out of school before finishing her GCSEs. She chose to become homeless rather than continue to suffer her father’s abusive and threatening behaviour and lived for a number of years in poverty in a squat with people with social and drug problems. She had a string of unhealthy relationships: she was sexually assaulted by a 42 year old man and was then in a relationship with a 40 year old and got pregnant. When Jay found out he told Sarah to get an abortion which she did, but he gave her no support. Eventually a friend’s mother realised Sarah’s situation and invited her to stay at her house and she slept on the sofa.

And when the children grow up …

Sarah has had a lot of counselling and now sees that “I had been absorbing my dad’s anger for a long time and projecting. I stopped after I started therapy and realised the anger I was holding onto wasn’t mine”.

Nevertheless she says “it’s been hard writing out the truth because I didn’t want to admit weakness. I just told myself I could deal with anything because I had such a hard childhood.

I struggled in work when I eventually got on my own two feet and now I’m a manager I realised that I couldn’t communicate appreciation. By default I’m wired to believe all faults are mine because I was never enough, so I went to therapy and that’s when I realised the damage he’d caused. It took 36 years for me to understand this. I also realised that I’m motivated by fear of not doing enough, or by a sense of duty, and I struggled to recognise that I had needs and to be able to prioritise myself over others. I ended up attending a 12 week group therapy class which gave me lots of tools for revisiting my trauma and recognising the impact of it day to day.

A couple of Christmas’s ago I went home after a breakup and had been crying. I chose not to talk to my father about it but he came and sat down next to me and asked whether I was crying because of my breakup, which I confirmed. He just laughed and said, “You’re not one to stay with people” and got up and left. He had a hard childhood so we became great at rationalising our experiences: Dad had a hard life; things could be worse, etc. It stunted our emotional expression.

I spent many years bringing the wrong people into my life because I was attracted to people who were unsafe emotionally because that’s what I grew up with. Now I know how not to bring those people into my life but I’m timid about dating.

I took every chance I could in life because I wasn’t given any as a child. I now work for a Fortune 100 company: I’m a ‘woman in tech’ managing a team of strategic product managers. I educated myself outside of school and worked tirelessly for my future. I’m proud I managed to build financial and emotional stability to feel safe enough to revisit my past. There’s a part of me that realises I lived out his dreams and not mine, because I eventually became the ‘golden child’.  But I’m this despite his actions, not because of them. The next phase of the journey is getting to know the side of myself that wasn’t nurtured so I can live a full life.

Julian has not had any help because he is worried that, as we had such a terrible time as children, it would break him if he went to therapy. He still does endless things for our father, only to be criticised for not doing enough, and he’s wired to operate out of a sense of duty.”

The effects of growing up in an abusive household are lifelong. Neither Sarah nor Julian have married or had children. Sarah learned that parental alienation makes it harder to be a parent because it’s likely she would struggle to attach with her children due to her experience growing up.

Sarah’s description of her and her brother’s lives sound to me as though they have suffered very significant harm. But for so long as social workers, Cafcass and other family court professionals continue to dismiss abuse and coercive control like this as “parental conflict” children will continue to suffer and have their lives wrecked.

New research

There is, however, a glimmer of hope as there has been a new piece of research published last month which could be helpful for protective parents to use in court proceedings:

When Coercive Control Continues to Harm Children: Post‐Separation Fathering, Stalking and Domestic Violence

Like Sarah’s story, the accounts of children and young people in this research show how children can continue to be harmed by their father’s use of coercive control after their mother’s separation from him. It explores how, in the post‐separation phase, fathers can use the same tactics of coercive control against their children that they use against their ex‐partners, causing children the same kinds of psychological and emotional harm and constraining their lives.