Writer and broadcaster

How do I explain to my children the rift with my mother, whose partner abused me? The Guardian.

Dear Annalisa

I have been estranged from my mother since I was 18. When my brother and I were very young, my mother left my father for a man who abused us for many years. When I was 14, the abuse was disclosed and my mother’s marriage ended. I went to live with my dad on a permanent basis. My brother joined the armed forces straight from school.

My relationship with my mother had always been fractious and after I felt securely settled with my father and his new family, contact with her waned. Eventually, on a foreign holiday, she virtually abandoned me when she met a new man and, one evening when drunk, confessed she had known about the abuse but had done nothing about it. Soon after, I told her I wanted no further contact. My brother, to whom I am very close, maintains sporadic contact with her. We have reached an understanding on our positions over this. There really is no chance of a reconciliation with my mother as I feel I need to protect myself from her negative impact on my wellbeing.

I am now happily married with my own children, aged seven and 10. My problem is this: my children do not know that my stepmother is not my mother, their grandmother. My 10-year-old is getting more curious by the day and I feel I am lucky they have not worked it out yet. I want to make it clear that I do not want to lie to my children, but I’m struggling to explain how a child would not wish to be in contact with their own mother. When they are old enough, I will tell them the full story, but for now I would really appreciate some advice on helping them understand this situation.

One positive here – and there are many – is that you have made it very clear what you will not tolerate. This decisive action against an abusive collaborator will be something you can discuss with your children one day when you inevitably have a talk about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. That’s far better than having to one day explain why you are still in contact with her. But that particular conversation is for later. For now I think your main homework is really not so much what you say to your children but the work you need to do in your own head first.

Have you had any sort of therapy or talked through what happened to you? This is important because if you haven’t had counselling, then talking about this with your children may open up feelings you thought were buried. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood is a good organisation for you to get in contact with.

I talked to the child and adolescent psychotherapist Alison Roy (childpsychotherapy.org.uk) who specialises in working with adoptive families (ie where there are two family narratives that have to be explained). She wondered when your abuse started and if there’s something that has triggered memories – maybe your children are at a similar age?

She also thought it was really important to think of “a story which, while still being true, is one that you and your children can live with”. I wondered what your biggest fear was, and if you could explore that? Perhaps introducing the idea that you could grow up and not have contact with your mother frightened you because you were worried they may see this as an option with you? It’s just a thought, but if you could hone in on what is really scaring you about this, you are better able to deal with it.

Roy thought it wise that you bring it up and be honest but that “it’s OK to keep some things private, which is why you need to be clear beforehand about what you want to say”. She suggested you may want to do some talking about family trees and see what they understand about stepmums/grannies and birth mums (you could ask if anyone in the class has a similar setup, so they can relate to that) and that “sometimes the people we see as our mum didn’t give birth to us”. She suggested “doing it in a place of safety, prepare for questions [and they may come later], know what you want to say and what you don’t.

“You could also talk about the role of a mother generally – which is to protect and stop a child being hurt, and how your mother didn’t do that.” If they ask you how you got hurt you could say: “It’s really not important the detail of how I got hurt. One day, if it’s useful information, I’m happy to have that conversation.”

“What’s really important is to stay in control. Make sure the conversation doesn’t trigger your own distress,” says Roy, so that your children don’t end up looking after you. This is why it’s so important to have done some work on this story by yourself. It’s vital that when you tell your children that it isn’t the first time you’ve talked about this.

“Children,” says Roy, “often want to know about ‘what broke’ and it’s important you think about the positive choices you made – be clear about that. And remember it’s OK not to have all the answers. You can say: ‘This is what I know, this is what I don’t know, this is what I think happened.’”

Those are useful phrases that may become your framework.

This article first appeared in the Guardian Family section on 10 March 2017.