Protecting My Kids in a Dangerous Marriage: Laurel Slade-Waggoner
Therapist Laurel Slade-Waggoner talks about protecting her kids in her dangerous marriage—while staying strong amidst a narcissist's attempts to control.
About the Guest
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Therapist Laurel Slade-Waggoner talks about protecting her kids in her dangerous marriage while staying strong amidst a narcissist’s attempts to control.
Protecting My Kids in a Dangerous Marriage: Laurel Slade-Waggoner
Dave: I would say every parent has a built-in mechanism to protect their children.
Ann: Yes, it’s like a radar that’s continually going off of “Are they okay?” and then there’s a different kind of radar that goes off when they start dating.
Dave: Yes, I was thinking there were times when you would just go in the house because of your protection thing.
Ann: Oh, when I’m just protecting physically.
Dave: I would take them on some sort of adventure, and Ann would be like, “I can’t even watch.”
Ann: “I need to go in the house and just pray the rest of the time.”
Dave: Did any of them get hurt?
Ann: Um, no, but it’s because of my prayers. [Laughter]
Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife—
Dave and Ann: —Today!
Dave: I’m thinking of that protection mechanism when you find yourself in a marriage and you don’t trust your spouse with the kids—
Ann: Oh, yes.
Dave: —and you’re afraid. Maybe they’re controlling, maybe they’re overbearing, maybe they don’t have any boundaries. I don’t know what it is.
Ann: I don’t know if dads do this, but as a mom, I would continually think of “This is going to mess them up for the future. This could really mess them up what I’m doing.”
I think what would be really fearful is when you have a spouse that you’re seeing things or maybe even an ex-spouse who is doing things when the kids visit, and you don’t have any control over that.
Dave: Yes, that’s scary. We need some help. We’ve got Laurel Slade-Waggoner back in the studio with us today.
Welcome back, Laurel.
Laurel: Thank you for having me back.
Dave: You’ve written this book with this crazy title that I love, Don’t Let their Crazy Make Your Kids Crazy; subtitle: How to Shield Your Children from Their Narcissistic Parents Control and Manipulation.
That resonates; it’s like, “I want to protect my kids in all kinds of situations.” But I feel like we already mentioned it, “My spouse is doing something that I’m afraid is going to make my kids crazy.”
Ann: If you haven’t heard our previous session with you [Laurel] go back and listen to that, because it’s really about marriage. It was titled “Don’t Let Their Crazy Make You Crazy.” Now we’re going to talk about kids. But even that first time we talked to you, we were defining “What’s a narcissist?”
Let’s say you have a call in; you have a call in. Our listeners are like, “I want to call, and I want to ask this.” They say, “I think I might be married to a narcissist. I feel like this is affecting me and our whole household. How do I know if they really are a narcissist?”
Laurel: That’s a good question. I get asked that all the time. Looking at what a healthy person would do. A healthy person, if you confront them, if you said, “Please don’t take the boys ziplining when they’re four years old.”
Ann: “—when they’re three months old.” [Laughter]
Dave: I didn’t do it when they were three months old or four. [Laughter] But I did do it when they were 12.
Laurel: If you show them what they were doing, how it made you feel, what you would need, and you went to them and they said, “Get over it. You’re too sensitive. I’m going to do this. They’ll be fine”; no regard for what’s in the best interest of the children. That’s someone who is not really thinking of anyone but their own pleasure or comfort.
A narcissist is somebody who does that habitually. It’s not just a one- or two-time occurrence. It’s somebody who, when you bring things to their attention, when you attempt to collaborate, they don’t. They are 100 percent in power and control, and there is no collaboration.
I put a quote at the beginning of the book: “Narcissists don’t co-parent; they counter-parent.” So, they not only don’t listen; they interfere. The whole book is about equipping your children. That’s why there’s a picture of a shield on the front. God is our shield, and we have to figure out how to shield our children from those behaviors so that they can live out the plan that God has for them.
They have to know who they are; they have to know what to do; so that they don’t internalize that narcissistic person’s way of living.
Ann: I’m thinking of—because I’m a woman—I’m thinking of having a daughter. If I’m married to a narcissist, I could hear him—and if we go to church, I could hear him saying, “You need to be submissive to me.” Then you have your children, and especially your daughter, watching a mom want to be biblical, want to follow Jesus, she wants to do what the Bible says, so she probably has this “Am I following Jesus by just having him rule and control the entire household?” What would you say to that?
Laurel: I would say there’s a lot of confusion about submission. I would draw out what I believe healthy submission is. Let’s say, if you’re talking to your children, and you’re concerned that your spouse is engaging in some dangerous behavior; let’s say alcoholism. You don’t want your children to be around that alcoholism or you don’t want your children to want to engage in alcoholic behavior. You can draw out and say, “Okay, at the bottom there is children.” Then you draw an arrow up and then “There’s the parent.” Then you draw an arrow up. “Then there’s Jesus and the Holy Spirit and the Bible.” Then you draw another arrow up to the Heavenly Father.
Let’s just say “Dad” for simplicity’s sake. If Dad doesn’t want to listen [to] what God has to say about alcohol; it says, “Do not be filled with wine but instead be filled with the Holy Spirit” [Ephesians 5:18], because being filled with wine only leads to debauchery.
If Dad doesn’t want to listen to that and he veers out, we’re going to have to not listen to what Dad says about alcohol; we’re going to have to listen to what Jesus and the Bible say about alcohol. I’m going to tell you what that is and we’re going to get some protection in place, so you don’t have to be in Daddy’s presence when he’s drinking too much alcohol.
Ann: We’re not following them into sin. As we would say in our Weekend to Remember® marriage conferences, submission does not mean we follow our spouse into sin. We continue to follow Jesus. We demonstrate that and tell our kids that, “We’re going to follow Jesus. This is what He’s saying.”
Laurel: Exactly, because submission is ideally a beautiful thing about connection. We’re connected to somebody who is submitted to Christ in a beautiful, powerful way, but if they don’t want to submit to Christ—
Ann: —or if they’re an unbeliever—
Laurel: —we don’t want to break our connection with Christ, so we have to stay connected to Him and to biblical instruction.
Dave: Taking that example to the next step, if that mom is protecting—she wants to protect her kids, so Dad’s getting drunk; Dad comes home and goes out again the next night or the next weekend and comes home, and this pattern just keeps going, is there a decision at some point? “We’ve got to break out of this,” or do they just stay and let their dad’s behavior continue?
Laurel: That’s where I think we talked about on the prior episode that Joshua 24:15 is a powerful, powerful Scripture. The end of that verse is “…as for me and my household, I’m going to serve the Lord.” [Paraphrased]
I had to go through this with my boys. I sat them down and told them my Joshua 24:15 plan that we were going to invite Dad into the plan of sobriety. I explained Joshua 24:15, and then [drew] another diagram. I love diagrams, so when I was counselling kids, and even grownups, I’d draw a lot of diagrams.
But I drew a stick figure of me and the boys and Dad. Then next to Dad I put the issues and I said, “We want Dad to draw the line of separation between those behaviors and himself. But if he won’t, then what God says to do is we have to be separated from those behaviors, so we’re going to have to separate from Dad. But he’s free to choose. If he doesn’t want to get rid of those behaviors, then we’re going to have to separate.”
Ann: That’s not easy.
Laurel: “We’ll just pray for Dad and—"
Dave: Did they say anything? I’m guessing they’re seeing the same things. It isn’t like they’re blind to what Dad’s doing.
Laurel: They had seen it for years. They had seen me confront for years, and things didn’t change. They knew exactly what was going on. I mean they were on board with it even though there were lots of tears. It was hard, but I can tell you being a single parent, we got so close to God, and we got so close to each other.
Dave: It’s so hard as a mom, a wife, husband, dad, whatever situation it is to make that call. Because they want to stay and they think, “He’ll turn; she’ll turn.” But at some point, you realize “We’ve given them a choice and they don’t.” You made that hard call. It’s the best thing you did, right?
Laurel: Right. I would also say, I meet with a lot of clients that are confused. They feel like they are choosing themselves over that narcissistic person. But you are actually loving that narcissistic person God’s way and you’re choosing what’s in the best interest of them. They need their Lord and Savior and you pulling back your presence and you letting them—letting God have that person, that is the most loving thing you can do for the parent.
That’s an important thing to explain to the children, too; like, “I’m not doing this for myself; we’re doing this for everybody. We’re doing it for you; we’re doing it for Daddy; we’re doing it for—"
Dave: Yes, you’re choosing to protect your kids. That’s a big—let me ask this: If you don’t make that choice, what does that do to your kids if you stay and they are raised by a parent who is not co-parenting but counter-parenting with their mom or dad and is a controlling fool, what’s that going to do to your kids long term?
Laurel: It sets them up for vulnerability to either become narcissistic themselves, because they see the power that that narcissistic person has and they see the destruction that the non-narcissistic parent is living in, and they don’t want to choose that, so they’ll choose that narcissistic person’s lifestyle.
Or they go the other way, and they become extremely co-dependent, and they don’t form their identity. That’s why I encourage all parents, no matter what’s going on with their children, I think understanding that God has a plan for each of your children and our job, as parents, is to help children understand that plan. So, you have to notice who God created in the person of your child. You have to nurture that and then you have to respect that and not try to make them a clone of yourself or something you want them to be.
Ann: You are a licensed therapist. So, you have that part of you that knows the consequences of what could happen, and I’m guessing you’re trying to protect your kids, and even form that God-given identity in them, as they’re going through it. How did you do that?
Laurel: A lot of talks, a lot of age-appropriate honesty, a lot of proactive teaching. Something I did with my boys, and I did with tons of child and adolescent clients was a “Who am I” activity.
As they were talking, I was listening, I was writing down different things about them: their likes, their dislikes, their temperament, their strengths, and then I put on there, “You are precious; you are worthy. God has a plan for your life.”
I had all these different words of who they are. I make a copy and keep it for my file, and I give it to them, and I say, “Don’t ever let anybody ever try to convince you otherwise. You are this person.”
If they’re very gifted artistically, we can’t make them into an athlete; we can’t force them into certain activities. You notice that God gave them that gifting, so you notice that, you nurture it, and you respect it even if maybe you want them to be an athlete.
Ann: You are constantly feeding them “This is who you are. This is the truth of Scripture. This is what I see,” all of those things continually.
Laurel: Right, and that neutralizes the narcissistic impact.
Dave: Your kids are older now. Do you feel like your words, your life as a mom: “You are precious,” got through?
Laurel: Yes; they were both on their different journeys.
My oldest son, he’s very passionate, loves to speak, loves to preach. He has this righteous anger. He would be the one that was trying to thwart his dad’s narcissistic behavior, and he’d be the one that was writing him letters and confronting him.
My younger son was more quiet. Then when we divorced, he felt sorry for his dad because he saw me having all my friends at church, wonderful, wonderful clients that were super supportive, and then eventually remarried. But his dad was still engaging in that chaotic, crazy lifestyle, so he felt sorry.
Ann: Oh, Laurel, was that hard for you?
Laurel: Yes, yes. That’s where in the first book I talk about “pick your battles,” and you have to really strategize to the balance of protecting the kids and not controlling the kids. You have to really find that place.
I would have to equip him and tell him what to do when he was over there and different things. Now that he’s grown up and he has a serious girlfriend of his own, he is just now getting in touch with his righteous anger; like, “I cannot believe Dad made those choices.” He’s a finance major, and he’s like, “I don’t understand how Dad could make those choices financially.”
Ann: You even talked about age-appropriate honesty. That’s probably a tricky balance and depending on their age what that looks like.
Laurel: It is. I think that that is really a difficult one. Because I do—I don’t know if you’ve ever heard that Dietrich Bonhoeffer quote that says, “Silence in the face of evil is in fact evil”?
So, you don’t want to be silent, and you don’t want to give the impression that you support that behavior. I use the filter of the Bible. If there is activity that’s going on that directly contradicts Scripture, then in an age-appropriate way we have to let that child know what it is, because we don’t want him or her thinking that that’s acceptable behavior, what God wants for anybody.
Age-appropriate honesty is difficult where there is narcissism involved.
Ann: You were a therapist. As a mom, were you their therapist or did you put your kids with someone else, because you know it. Is it important for kids to get help?
Laurel: Yes, I referred them to someone else. Now, one of my big regrets is I probably brought too much therapy home. [Laughter] Like, I would bring home the Self-control Bear Game or Escape from Anger Island.
Ann: Did they say, “Mom, not another diagram!”
Dave: Diagrams on the walls. [Laughter]
Laurel: Or yes, I would do the devotions at the breakfast table while they were captive and couldn’t leave. I was probably too structured because everything else was so chaotic. That was the one area of “I’m going to equip you.” I probably over equipped them, but—
Ann: Has your first husband changed?
Ann: He’s still the same?
Laurel: Yes, yes so—
Dave: You say that in both your books: “Narcissists don’t change.”
Dave: They can, I’m guessing.
Ann: —except for the power of God.
Dave: The power of God can do anything, but often you don’t see that happen.
Laurel: Right. As a matter of fact, I had his prior girlfriend reaching out to me. She’s just emotionally battered and “How can you do this?” He just doesn’t change. It’s so sad. He’s very likeable; he has a great personality. Everybody likes him. But he just will not relinquish these behaviors.
Dave: When you look back, because now your kids are older and you can look back with some perspective on the life you lived, where do you see God?
Laurel: “Where was God?”
Dave: Where was God in your marriage, in your husband being a fool, in your divorce, in your remarriage and your divorce and then now you’re in a blended family with five kids and grandkids? Do you have a perspective like you look back and say, “Oh, here’s where I saw God in this whole thing”?
Laurel: It’s amazing. I am a very, very shy, quiet person, so the mere fact that I’m even sitting here—[Laughter]—or that I’ve gotten up and spoken to 200 people, it’s just God is my everything, God is my lifeline.
I would literally sleep with my Bible, my old NIV Bible that’s all battered on my ex-husband’s pillow to remind me that God is there. I am not alone. His promises are true. He was faithful when a door closed. An example is I really wanted a house in the neighborhood where my ex-husband had lived. He said he was taking the house. I had to get out, which a lot of them do. He makes the money, so “You want to leave? Leave, but you’re not getting money and you’re not getting the house.”
I kept driving around for months looking for a house to rent in that neighborhood. Nothing opened up, but then all of a sudden, in the neighborhood right next to my boy’s school, a great house opened up where they could walk to school. God knew better. I thought I wanted this, but God gave them a better gift. I could still work and see clients after school, and they had a safe way home from school.
God is so faithful. All His promises are really true. We might not see where His provision and His help is going to come from, but it is there.
Dave: It’s interesting, in my mind when I heard you say you put your Bible where your ex-husband’s pillow was, it’s like you replaced him with God.
Laurel: Um hmm.
Dave: Which you always had, but it was just a visual to say, “I’m not going to submit to this man who is going to lead me to sin; I’m going to submit to The Man.” Again, I’m putting words in your mouth. But what a visual to say, —
Ann: —for any of us.
Dave: — “This is my rock; this is my hope. He’s right here.”
Laurel: Absolutely, I think that fear of Him not providing keeps a lot of people in abusive circumstances though. I don’t know what kept your mom stuck, but I meet with a lot of people who they don’t trust they’ll be okay financially and they don’t trust that their kids are going to be okay.
Laurel: That’s why I’m very thankful for Matthew 18:15-17, because we’ve got to get more eyes on it if—I walked through how to teach children that Scripture; like, “Please stop, Mommy,” or “Please stop, Daddy.”
Ann: You should read that Scripture to close it.
Laurel: Even our educational system uses that, right? So, if somebody is bullying you, you tell them to stop. If they don’t listen, you get a teacher. You go get somebody else. If [they] still won’t listen, then the principal gets involved. If that bully still won’t listen, he gets expelled.
So, Matthew 18:15-17, is being used in the school system, and we don’t even give God the credit for that.
Dave: Yes, I’ll read it. It says, “If your brother sins against you,”—by the way this is Jesus speaking:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. [Matthew 18:15-17 ESV]
Laurel: Which means separation, right? God truly has all the answers. If you can just get to that point of believing that—that’s what helped me was “Okay, it feels wrong to set boundaries, but this is what God says to do, and I’m going to trust it.” Then the abuse stops.
Ann: That’s so good.
Dave: It’s the most loving thing a person can do. It doesn’t feel like it at times, but even as parents with our kids we have to set boundaries. Man, if you’re in a marriage situation where you realize, “I’m married to a fool,” there’s got to be boundaries. It’s going to impact your, not only your home, but your legacy. It’s going to impact your kids’ kids’ kids. It doesn't stop.
Laurel: Yes; absolutely.
Shelby: Hi, I’m Shelby Abbott. You’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Laurel Slade-Waggoner on FamilyLife Today.
Boundaries and sometimes separation means it’s one of the most loving things we can do—Wow!—not only for ourselves, but for our children and our children’s children. I love that Dave unpacks Scripture there at the end. Powerful stuff today from Laurel Slade-Waggoner.
She’s actually written a book called Don't Let Their Crazy Make You Crazy. You can pick up a copy of it. If you’re under the control of a narcissist or you know someone who is under the control of a narcissist, just head over to FamilyLifeToday.com, and you can pick up your copy there.
While you are there, we wanted to let you know that Nana Dolce who was a guest earlier this week on FamilyLife Today has written a book called The Seed of the Woman: 30 Narratives that Point to Jesus. That book by Nana is going to be our thanks to you when you partner financially with us at FamilyLifeToday.com.
When you do that, you can help more families hear more conversations like the one you just heard today. Again, you can partner online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can give us a call at 800-358-6329. Now when you give, it could be a one-time gift or a recurring monthly gift. Again, the number is 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Now speaking of narcissism, tomorrow on FamilyLife Today, we’re going to talk about narcissism in blended families with Ron Deal. Our very own Ron Deal will be here with Dave and Ann Wilson. We hope you’ll join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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