My husband has never been violent with me, but it is an entirely different story where our children are concerned. He frequently lashes out at them physically, and has seriously injured them on more than one occasion. I want to protect them, but I’m terrified of how he may react if I challenge him. What can I do?

This is an urgent situation. If your husband has indeed “seriously injured” your children “on more than one occasion,” the time for discussion is past. You must take decisive action at the earliest opportunity. We understand your fears and hesitations, of course. You know better than we do exactly how your husband is likely to respond if you cross him. It’s possible that you would be endangering yourself by standing up to him on the kids’ behalf. That’s a matter of serious concern. Nevertheless, you still need to listen to your maternal heart and do what it tells you. If you think about it, you’ll see that this is a case where love and concern for your children’s safety (Asset #10) trumps every other consideration. There really is no other choice.

Exactly what do we mean by “decisive action”? A great deal depends upon your immediate circumstances. Are your children facing imminent danger? Have they just been subjected to physical harm? If so, don’t waste time talking or arguing. Call 911 without delay. Let the police intervene and allow the process to unfold from there. Otherwise you could be held legally liable for any harm that might come to your kids.

If several days have passed since the latest violent episode and there is not a threat of immediate danger, contact Child Protective Services. Don’t assume that the abusive behavior won’t recur. That would be to run an unnecessary risk. If the threat to your own safety is too great, remember that you have other options. There are alternatives to making the report yourself. A doctor, a teacher, a school counselor or nurse, a social worker – any one of these professional adult role models (Asset #14) would be legally responsible to make the report on your behalf if you were to open your heart to them. Not to mention the support your child will experience knowing that there are advocates in their corner.

Once the facts are out in the open, you may need to create a crisis by giving your husband an ultimatum. Let him know that there can be no question of maintaining the status quo. At this point healthy family boundaries (Asset #11) need to be modeled for your children who are at risk. How should you go about this? We suggest you begin by setting up an appointment for yourself and the children with a family counselor, preferably a therapist who understands the dynamics of abuse, power, and control, and who is well trained in the highly specialized field of crisis intervention. Tell your husband that this is absolutely necessary in order to protect the children and preserve the integrity of the family. Next, insist that he also seek out the help of a professional counselor. This should take place separately from you and the children, at least in the beginning phases of the process, as it is possible for an abusive spouse to manipulate a joint counseling session and subsequently turn it to his own advantage or use it as an excuse for further abusive behavior. If he refuses, make it clear that, either way, you and the children will be moving out and living someplace else until such time as the problem is resolved.

In connection with this last piece of advice, you should bear in mind that this probably isn’t going to be a quick and easy process. Abuse is usually rooted in deeply entrenched patterns of thought and behavior, and you can’t expect those patterns to be reversed in a couple of counseling sessions. If this sounds extreme, bear in mind that it’s absolutely necessary for the children’s protection. It may also represent your last best hope for redeeming this tragic situation and preserving the integrity of your family. Naturally, you’ll want to make sure that your support system (Assets #3 and 4: Other Adult Relationships and Caring Neighborhood) is in place and that you actually have someplace to go before you put the matter to him in these terms. See if you can stay in the home of a friend, family member, or neighbor. Lay your plans, line up your resources, and make your arrangements prior to packing your bags and walking out the door.