Trigger Warning: We will be talking about trauma experienced as a result of abusive relationships.
I want you to know that one of the reasons we don't tell other people is that we believe that they're gonna judge us. Well, the research actually shows that there are more people out there who support us than people who judge us.
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Roxanne Francis also goes by @francispsychotherapy on Instagram is a registered social worker and a registered psychotherapist with over 12 years of experience. She is the founder and owner of branches psychotherapy and counselling services. She is certified in play therapy with children and psychotherapy with adolescents and adults. She has been seen on several news outlets such as CTV News, Global TV, the Morning Show, CBC, and so much more. She also speaks on several different podcasts and she is amazingly dedicated to helping you live your best life.
SWY: So Roxanne, can you tell us a little bit more about yourself and your work? What do you do for children who may experience trauma or abuse?
RF: So my first foray into this work was in children's mental health. So I worked with little kids. I didn't work with teens and a lot of them came through the door with trauma. I've since left that job. I still work with adults, but a big percentage of my clientele is still young people and young men. They present with lots of different kinds of trauma. Some of them come in with sexual trauma, some committed with physical trauma, some come from war-torn countries, or have witnessed intimate partner violence between their parents or a partner. They carry that with them and sometimes they don't know how to discuss it or who to discuss it with. They often need a non-judgmental outlet, a person, or a place that is safe for them. A lot of people don't feel safe talking about what's going on with them. A lot of young people believe when people tell them that it's their fault. It's your fault that this thing happened to you, it's your fault that you made me respond like this, or it's your fault that you made me do this to you. They internalize that and they believe that, so they walk around with this feeling of shame and often wind up with a lot of negative coping strategies. I worked with an 18-year-old one time who was severely caught up in alcoholism because of all the things that he witnessed over his life. It's hard when you don't have a safe place. It's hard when you don't have the coping strategies and when society tells you that it's your fault.
SWY: Thank you for sharing that. What age range do you specifically treat?
RF: I work with small children as well, but not specifically trauma with small children. It's usually fears or separation, stuff like that between parents, but in terms of traumatic incidents. It's usually kids around eight or nine years old, up into their teens, right up until 17,18,19 years old. The younger kids often are very afraid by what they've witnessed or built on how long they've been experiencing the trauma, they believe that it's just part of life, sadly. Having a place to unpack and process all of that and to have someone say to them that that was not normal, and that was not okay, and what is, is really important.
SWY: So what does an abusive relationship look like? What are some signs of this type of relationship amongst adolescents?
RF: So a lot of people believe that adolescents don't get caught up in abusive relationships, but you'd be surprised at what happens because we're not paying attention to it. Abusive relationships in adolescence can look a lot like abusive relationships in the adult world. It can be physically, sexually, or emotionally abusive. With young kids and adolescents, it could look like restricting the other person's movements. You can't be friends with this person, you can’t be friends with and hang out with those people, you can't go there, you can't go anywhere without me or I will tell your parents. It could also be coercion into behaviors that you don't want to participate in, whether that's drinking or drug use, it's being embarrassed into different kinds of behaviors. A lot of young people are getting involved in religion, where they're being physically assaulted, and they're being made to hide that, or they're being made to stay at their partner's house, particularly if your living situation is volatile or unsafe. Then it's almost as though you have no other choice but to enter, so it can be challenging.
SWY: With abusive relationships, are there intersectionalities within the trauma, that abuse and raise what would you say?
RF: I think that what tends to happen is that the marginalized populations, particularly where race is concerned, people of color specifically tend to find themselves, not that white individuals don't find themselves in abusive relationships they do, but there's something around that nuance of intersectionality. There's lots of historical trauma as it relates to people of color. In particular, the black population. There are a lot of systems at play in our lives, a lot of people believe that individuals make these large choices for their lives. But the truth of the matter is that there are large systems at play and some of those systemic barriers result in poverty in marginalized communities, lots of trauma, introjection, intergenerational trauma, and poverty in communities of color. Things like multiple jobs where the parents can't oversee or supervise young people in the way that they should be supervised. So you find that there are lots of incidences of abuse, incidents of coercion, of forcing young people or some other young partner to miss school, for a single young partner into trafficking. I know you've spoken about that here on the slide before. It can look so many different nuances to it, people believe that traffic can only look one way, but it can be as innocent-looking as a sweep-over. And so there are a lot of nuances where race plays in abusive relationships. I'm very careful about being key to this because some people will tend to walk away believing that abuse only happens in black couples, or in communities and relationships where people are of color, that's the case, but there are definitely things at play, like the suspended compressions, things like streaming, where young people are pushed out of schools. There is a lot of anger, there's a lot of grief when your parents can't find a job, and an adult in the home takes that out on the adolescent. That adolescent has a lot of pent-up rage and it comes out in the relationships that they pursue. A lot of modeling of effective conflict resolution. That comes out in the relationships that young people pursue. What a lot of people don't realize is that developmentally adolescents get into relationships that model older relationships around them. It helps them practice for their own adult relationships.
Someone says to maybe like a 14 or 15-year-old, you shouldn't have a girlfriend or you shouldn't have a partner, you don't know anything about relationships, you are too young. The truth of the matter is, what's happening is that they're practicing their social connections, and they're practicing how to be happy with people, how to be happy for people, how to support people, or how to resolve conflict. It sets the stage for their adult lives. If there are no adults around them, that are modeling these things in a positive way, then it will come out in the relationships in a similar way to how a five-year-olds angst and stress will come out in their play. That stress and aches in an adolescent will come out in the way that they have their interpersonal relationships with others around them.
SWY: Thank you for explaining that process. It’s very important to understand how things that are modeled at home are mimicked or mirrored by children or adolescents that are seeing them. You're always basically playing a role there. You kind of have to be careful what you do and try to model these things.
RF: Exactly. Even if there are people in the community who don't have children, I would like to say that they don't get off the hook very easily. We are all raising our children in this community and if a young person is unable to see that model in their home, but they have a close and supportive relationship with another adult elsewhere, then the young person can get that modeling from that person. So, say I have no children, but I work at the community center, and I do after school-tutoring or homework with the kids, then I can show them how to resolve conflicts in a good way. When kids are arguing, I can step in and say, hey, this is how it's done, here's what you need to do instead. I can talk to them about how to have proper positive relationships, and you can be there for young people and show them what it's like to offer unconditional support, and how to be disappointed in someone but not fly off the handle. We might think that, well, I'm not a caregiver, I don't have kids, I'm not a grandparent, but we're in the community, and we are all set examples for the people around us.
SWY: Thank you, that's so important. My next question is that it is often portrayed and discussed in the media that the male is typically the sole or primary abuser. Are these perceptions accurate and what is your opinion on this?
RF: I take issue with that. All the movies and all the shows show women as victims. That is not untrue, there are women who are often the recipient of the abusive behavior. There are often situations where women are also the aggressors. Women can be physically abusive, women can be sexually abusive. Women can be financially abusive and very destructive. We can ruin relationships. Women can destroy livelihoods, destroy reputations, and cause people to lose jobs. Whether or not you are in a heterosexual relationship, or you are in a same-sex relationship. That's another thing that the media doesn't ever seem to portray. People who are not in heterosexual relationships also have very complex and nuanced lives. When there is assault in those relationships there's almost no place to turn because the supports seem to be geared towards the heterosexual norm. That's something that needs to be addressed as well. But no, I believe that women are often the aggressors in different relationships. We destroy property, we shred important documents, we turn on the children, sometimes we call people's workplace and slander them causing people to lose jobs, we become physically abusive, women don't just get angry in on the defense, right? In the same way that a lot of men grew up with anger and trauma, and no place to put that, it happens to a lot of young girls as well. In a hetero-sex relationship, let's say the male partner isn't doing what the female partner wants, then she can become very vindictive, very aggressive. It's not something that's often portrayed in the media at all.
SWY: Yeah, I fully agree, and thank you for breaking those myths and bringing emphasis to same-sex relationships and females. As you said, it's not portrayed in the media. I wish there were more spaces for individuals to go to that weren't so biased.
RF: I find that there's a lot of support for women who, for example, a woman might call 911 and say, I need some support. My husband or my partner or my male partner is assaulting me and everyone rushes in, right? There are different shelters where you can go with the kids and lots of support to help you find housing, which should be there. I'm not saying that shouldn't be there. However, if the tables are turned, and a woman is severely assaulting a man, it's almost made to seem as though the man is weak. Why can't you defend yourself? It takes a longer time for the police to arrive at that home and they are more likely to just talk to them so they can work it out. As opposed to whisking the male partner off to safety. It's almost as though he's expected to take care of himself. But in adolescent relationships, there's again that bias where it's made to seem as though this young man should be able to defend himself, he should be able to fight. Well, who teaches young boys to fight? Who teaches young boys how to defend themselves? They might be so caught up in this idea that they are in love with this girl and then she becomes abusive or aggressive. To deal with it they hide in there, they feel a lot of shame. How can they show their face to their peers? How can they show their face to their boys? There isn't a lot of support for our young boys who are dealing with this?
SWY: I just wanted to mention, someone commented, support is so important, and often is the key to recovery.
RF: Most definitely, especially in spaces where the relationships are people who have relationships or people of color. When I was in school, there was a lot of discussion around how wealthy people don't ever seem to get caught up in abusive relationships. The truth of the matter is, they do get caught up in abusive relationships, but there are a lot more resources. They're able to run off to the cottage and just take a breather, or they're able to access other things that are below the radar so that they can take care of things without having to deal with the systems and the resources that are publicly available. A lot of communities of color don't have access to those financial resources. We are left to deal with whitelists, we contact youth shelters and we're told that we have no beds. It's a really challenging system to be caught up in because the resources are small.
SWY: Based on that last question, you mentioned a few of these examples, but in a hypothetical situation, when a young woman is destroying their partner's possessions or property after a fight or a breakup, typically in the media, this is called a “toxic relationship”. Would you define this as an abusive relationship?
RF: If the shoe were on the other foot, the male partner would be called an abuser and everyone would be rushing in to support the female victim. But if it's the woman who's the aggressor, and she's destroying all this person’s stuff, then it's called toxic. It somehow takes a softer tone, it somehow just extracted yourself from that relationship and leave that toxic person. But if the aggressor is male, then that person is called abusive. We need to be really careful about our language because discourse really shifts the way we think about things. We don't offer support to our young men who need to be extracted from these abusive relationships, call it what it is, we really need to call it.
SWY: In the US, countless media outlets highlight and exaggerate these relationships for attention or shock value. I feel so sad for a lot of these adolescents that are going through these things. We need more of those supports and resources. We need more of the community not exploiting these jobs, honestly, they're exploiting these adolescents. They're exploiting these children for monetary gain, but we need to support them in their need for recovery and their need for help.
RF: A lot of young people may not be in their home situation for one reason or another and they're sometimes completely dependent on this other partner. Sometimes it's two adolescents in a relationship. Sometimes it's one adolescent who is in a precarious living situation, and they're caught up with an adult, and they're completely rendered on this person. When that person moves that support away, then they're left without a home to stay in, they're left without money. They get caught up in a dangerous kind of life, sleeping in cars, couch surfing, etc. People are often left quite vulnerable. As a result, they sometimes feel like they can't leave these abusive relationships because the support is so minimal.
SWY: One situation that is especially interesting that I don't think is often discussed is the emotionally abusive part of the abusive relationship. What is emotional abuse? What does that look like?
RF: A lot of people only think that relationships are abusive if you're bruised or bloodied or being hurt physically in some way. Emotionally abusive relationships can be just as or even more damaging. Emotional abuse is considered abuse that is verbal or messes with your psyche. Name-calling, degrading, isolation, control, emotional abuse consists of all those things. Other things like a show of force, threatening language, threatening behavior. I've heard stories where one partner threatens the life of the other and then goes and gets a weapon and puts it on the coffee table. I've heard relationships where people are locked out and are told they just have to stay outside because you dissed me. Those things, while not physically abusive cause you to second guess who you are. Things like controlling your physical movements, controlling your behavior, controlling you so that you have no other option but to depend on that person. Gaslighting, that's another form of emotional abuse, where you are very mean and horrific to your partner. Then when your partner brings it up, you make it seem as though it's all in their head. That's also emotional abuse. Disrespecting your partner in public, putting them down in public, making them feel stupid, calling them stupid, telling them that they'll never amount to anything, telling them that no one else will ever want them. These are things that consist of emotional abuse, property destruction, as well, especially if you have something that's near and dear to you. I have heard of stories of young people who are caught up in relationships, and they've got their whole life in a backpack and their partner just lights it on fire just for kicks. That's emotional abuse because that person's got nothing. Oftentimes the abuser will say, but I haven't touched you, what are you talking about? That's another form of gaslighting making you feel like, I'm just imagining this, or it's all in my head, or no one will believe me. Go ahead, call them, no one will believe you.
I'm really glad that you're doing this, it's really important that we call it out, that we say what these things are because someone was going to look at this live either someone who is participating now, or someone's going to look at this later and go, oh, that's actually what's happening to me. If we don't talk about it, then people won't recognize it. The more we talk about it, the more people understand. If a friend of theirs is in an emotionally abusive relationship, if they're in an emotionally abusive relationship, or even their parents, they might be able to recognize it. Or they'll be able to say, okay, this is what I need to look out for when I start to date or when I start to get involved in intimate relationships. It's really important that we start calling out some of these things. People talk about things like financial abuse and I think that that's also caught up in emotionally abusive patterns, things like controlling your money, asking you for receipts. How come there's only this much money left in the account? I counted it this morning. There's only this much left than what did you do with it? All those things. I think in my work we kind of split them up, emotionally, financially, but I think all of that stuff can be put under the umbrella of emotional abuse. Someone who might have a mental health issue, withholding their medication, preventing them from going to the doctor, or exposing them to the things that they have anxiety about, all those things can be under the emotionally abusive umbrella.
SWY: You really took the words right out of my mouth. I was just about to say, if anyone were to watch this, they're able to hear clear examples. Even for myself, I'm listening to you and I'm thinking, is there anyone I know? So thank you so much for providing those examples. My next question is again when it comes to adolescents that are still learning effective communication and about interpersonal relationships. Of course, there are choice words that can be said, during the relationship between the partners retained roles. And, of course, as you said, when emotional abuse becomes consistent, it becomes an umbrella of these things. It can become physical, sexual, or financial abuse. What are some tips on how to effectively communicate your emotions in this way?
RF: Even when you find yourself in this kind of relationship?
SWY: Yeah, some of the signs to kind of prevent it from turning into something.
RF: When you are in an intimate partner relationship, you want to be clear about your communication. It's never a good thing to assume that the other person knows what you're thinking. It's never a good thing to assume that they know what's going on with you. So try to be as clear with your communication as possible. Try to communicate exactly what it is that you want. The outcome. If someone speaks to you in a way that you don't like, try to speak up for yourself. It can be difficult if you have witnessed abuse all of your life and you feel like you can't speak up for yourself. But I encourage you to say something like that made me really uncomfortable. Be clear about what it is that made you uncomfortable. I didn't like when you yelled at me because it made me think of the service situation that I was in, or when you do this when we're in public I find it really embarrassing and I don't like that and it makes me uncomfortable. I would just ask and speak clearly about what's going on for you and how it made you feel not just don't do that, but how it made you feel because then people will or more are more likely to take your thoughts and feelings into consideration. If you are in a relationship where that person does not seem to really appreciate your thoughts, or your hurts, or your desires, or how you would prefer to be treated in the relationship, then I would say to you do what you can to make plans to exit that relationship in a safe way. Often are in abusive relationships. The most dangerous time I must say is when you try to exit because people get really angry about the prospect of losing that control. They become very volatile. That's when things like stalking start to happen. So you want to be careful if you find yourself in this kind of situation. You need to see who your people are around where you might feel safe. If you don't have cousins and aunties and another extended family that you can reach out to, is there a teacher that is safe to you, is there someone that you want maybe like a former manager who was always nice to you. I would reach out to someone in the community, that you feel that you can trust, confide in them, let them know what's happening, and start to build your network of resources. So that when you've decided to sever this relationship, that person can be a support to you and can offer some help. Keep in mind that you may have to do something like changing your phone number. If you decide to keep your phone, you may have to block them off all social media, block them off of your contacts list. When you try to extricate yourself from a relationship, and they're still in contact with you, then they're still going to abuse you from a distance. If you guys are on the same phone plan, you're gonna need to get yourself off of that. If you are on their bank account, you're going to have to try to see if you can get your own bank account. So you're going to want to try to extricate yourself from that as much as possible. If you feel like your parents can be supportive, then talk to your parents, let them know that you got caught up in this thing and now it's become a problem and you don't know what to do. If you feel like they're going to lose their cool, then is there another safe and trusting adult in your life that you can connect with and try to get some support because the hardest thing to do is to leave an abusive relationship totally on your own, it is unlikely to be successful.
SWY: Sometimes children and adolescents can be involved in that sort of relationship as well.
RF: Yes and it's also hard to leave any relationship if you have little children. If you have little children in tow, if you have little siblings, if you have a baby yourself, it can be hard. But there are resources out there that will offer support to young parents and they will be more than happy to connect with you. Particularly if they know that you are in an abusive relationship. I know that the Children's Aid Society in Ontario can get a fairly bad rap for yanking babies away from parents, but they also can play a protective role where they can offer you the resources and the supports that you need to pull you away because pulling children away from parents isn't something that they enjoy doing. If you have a child with you, and your relationship is abusive, you can contact this EAS and you can ask for support and they can step in, in a supportive role, as well.
SWY: You've answered my last question as well. Thank you for going into that. Those are very effective tips for communicating but it also depends on the extent of the abusive relationship, the length of the relationship, the support that you have, whether you're living at home, or whether you're dependent on that person. You've mentioned quite a few things that are very important to think about as well. There are so many things going through my mind right now. I want to hat thank you Roxanne and I just wanted to mention everything that you've said today. In the media, it's not mentioned as much for the male perspective, different communities, or same-sex relationships. Any advice that Roxanne has presented today is for any individual who is experiencing abuse in a relationship. Do you want to add any more to that?
RF: There is hope. Oftentimes, when you are in abusive relationships, it just feels like we can't do anything about that. I was talking to a client today, who is in a difficult situation, and part of the session was just about how we can find hope when we are stuck in our difficult situation. It just feels like there's never something on the other side, like I'm never going to get out of this. Exiting that kind of situation is not something that's an overnight process, it takes time. You have to build up your resources, maybe save a little cash, ask a friend to stash some clothes just in case you have to take off, photocopy your stuff. If you have a driver's license photocopy that, if you have a birth certificate, photocopy that, if you have a passport photocopy that, and put it all in a bag with 50 bucks and two changes of clothing, and ask your girlfriend to keep it for you just in case. If stuff hits a fan and you have to take off then you know that you've got those things there. It takes time for us to build up our courage to leave, it takes time for us to build up the courage to admit to someone else that this is what's happening. I want you to know that one of the reasons we don't tell other people is that we believe that they're gonna judge us. Well, the research actually shows that there are more people out there who support us than people who judge us. So take that as some comfort. I support you in however you choose to try to leave that situation.
We want to thank Roxanne for sharing her expertise and breaking some myths out there. We also want to thank the audience for joining in this conversation to have an open discussion, of course, about very difficult issues because as you said, that's where it starts. That's where the support comes from. Make sure to follow Roxanne @francispsychotherapy.
Resources that Roxanne Offers:
I work with young people. I work with adults, I work with anyone from foreign up. I work with adults and couples, I do organizational work, so if your company is looking for someone to come in for training, I do that as well. If you're a therapist on here, I also offer supervision to therapists who are looking for support in the community. So hop on over to therapy and just take a peek.