Dear Salma: Advice on a verbally abused mom and an angry son

In today’s column, Salma responds to a daughter whose elderly mother is in a verbally abusive marriage and a mother whose son seems unable to manage his anger.

In today’s column, Salma responds to a daughter whose elderly mother is in a verbally abusive marriage and a mother whose son seems unable to manage his anger.

Question #1

My parents have been married for over 30 years and as far back as I can remember, my father has disrespected my mother by yelling at her over frivolous issues (she had not picked his dress shirts from the dry cleaners or she hadn’t been ready on time for a dinner party). Often his berating would cause her to break down and cry. To this day, he continues to talk down to her and does not see her as an equal. My mother complains constantly to me about how she dislikes him and recounts in detail the many ways he humiliates and degrades her. My mother’s mistreatment complicates my own feelings towards my father. I have come to feel that she would be better off if she divorced him. How can I help her? Therapy isn’t something they would consider as they are of the mindset that it is a taboo to approach others for help. In fact, I don’t even think my father realizes how damaged their relationship has become. My mother’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem have been taking a beating for decades now and I wonder if it’s too late to help her.

It sounds like your parents’ marriage is an abusive one. The mistreatment you describe your mother enduring constitutes verbal and psychological abuse, and unfortunately we see this kind of abuse both inside and outside of the Muslim community. It is perfectly natural that witnessing this abuse has left you with complicated feelings towards your father. After all, he likely has many good qualities, but watching him mistreat your mother in front of you would leave you feeling resentful and confused. On the other hand, your desire to help your mother is also perfectly natural.

It is never too late to help. Your mother is blessed to have a child who is so concerned about her wellbeing! One of the first things you can do is to help your mother recognize what she is experiencing is, in fact, abuse, and it is therefore inconsistent with Islamic values. Providing her with some information could be the beginning of her journey to taking proactive care of herself. The Peaceful Families Project website is a great place to turn to as an educational resource.

Keep in mind that even once your mother realizes her husband has been abusing her, it may take some time before she is ready to seek help. Meanwhile, I would recommend that you to talk to a counselor who specializes in domestic violence so you can begin to heal from the pain of growing up in an abusive home.

–Salma

Question #2

How can I help instill a deeper sense of respect and responsibility in my 11-year-old son? He constantly talks back to my husband and I if he doesn’t get what he wants (for example, he becomes furious when we place limits on the T.V. shows he can watch or how long he can play video games). He also lies to us about completing his homework and chores around the house. I feel helpless and worry this behavior will carry through to adulthood. What steps can we take to help him better manage his anger and disappointment?

Parenting is an inherently challenging job, especially so when children push the limits. You are right to be concerned about his behavior, and he is fortunate to have a mother who cares so deeply about his wellbeing and development. There are a few key ingredients that can help children better manage their emotions and resulting behavior. First, it is important to create a home environment that is calm, peaceful and loving. Children should see their parents engaging in the behavior that parents want to see in their kids. In other words, parents have to model appropriate ways of expressing anger and coping with disappointment, which of course is an unavoidable part of life. Second, parents must provide their children with the proper language tools to talk about their anger. It’s perfectly normal for your son to be upset when he has to turn off the T.V. but help him to verbalize his frustration in a calm, respectful manner. Then let him know that while you understand and sympathize with his feelings, you will stick to the limits you have set. Third, it is critical to have clear and consistent messaging about limits and consequences for misbehavior. For example, let your child know up front how much time he can spend playing video games and what the consequence will be if he exceeds the limit. Then consistently and promptly enforce the punishment if he plays longer than he should. In that way, you are giving him the power to choose what will happen—he can either choose to play past the cutoff point and deal with the punishment or he can choose to respect the time limit and face no punishment. Place the onus on him to decide what path he takes. These are just a few suggestions; you can also find plenty of parenting books on the market that can help you and your husband identify strategies you can implement together to help you feel more empowered and your son less angry.

–Salma
Salma Abugideiri is a licensed, professional counselor with over fifteen years of experience. Her practice is in Northern Virginia. You can find more information on her website: wellnessthroughcounseling.com.

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