Children who grow up with an abusive father deal with many issues that continue to bother them well into adulthood. Here are some of the big ones that your wife and her siblings probably have. I think that if you can understand their struggles, then you can better help them.
Lack of trust in men. Children with a cruel or absent father don’t trust men. They fear them. As a child, this is particularly hard because there are needs that children have that they want their father to meet and when they aren’t met, they become sad and angry inside. They need love, support, and affection but since they know their father won’t give them, they never ask. Then they blame themselves for wanting those in the first place. As they mature, they learn that it isn’t “safe” to want affection or love from a man because men will just hurt you.
Deep anger toward men. Children who fear their fathers avoid them. Some children confront their fathers but this usually doesn’t end well. Children have many bottled up feelings of anger that they never express as children (because their father will only get angrier) so they swallow those feelings for years. When they meet (or marry) a man who is kinder, they begin to feel comfortable enough to express their anger. Many nice men married to women who had abusive fathers have wives vent that anger on them and they are confused. They don’t understand because they didn’t do anything wrong necessarily. They need to understand that adult children take the anger they feel toward their fathers out on men who won’t get angry in return.
Anger at themselves. When children have needs like love, affection, security, protection, etc., and a father fails to meet those needs, the child naturally becomes sad. But because the child is developmentally immature psychologically, he/she turns that anger in on himself or herself. In other words, the child becomes angry that he had a need for love, affection, etc., from dad rather than being mad at dad. This doesn’t make sense to grown-ups, but that’s how kids think. Over time, this anger can turn into depression. This is important to know because your wife and her siblings still feel these childlike emotions.
Here’s what you can do:
Show your wife and her siblings, over time, that you are a trustworthy man. Wives test their husbands to see if they can trust them. They will get angry and try to push them away. When your wife (or her siblings) do this with you, do NOT take it personally. They are testing you to see if you will hurt them or leave them like their father did. You need to earn their trust.
Help them talk about their feelings if they are willing. Many children who have deep feelings of anger, sadness or depression don’t know they have them. Or if they do, they don’t want to talk about them. Let your wife (and her siblings) know that you understand they have pain from growing up with their father (they will have it toward their mother, too) and that you are more than willing to listen if they want to talk.
If you see any of the siblings harming themselves, offer to find them help. Children who grow up with chronic anger turn the anger on themselves and do things like: overeat, starve, cut, change friends, drop out of school, drink or take drugs. If you see this in your family, rather than criticize them for the symptom, tell them you are concerned about their happiness. Let them know you are concerned because they seem to be unhappy and working against themselves.
This seems like a tall order and in fact, it is. But – helping family members recover from painful childhoods takes time – as in years. So, the best gift you can give each of them is patience, understanding and letting them know that you love them and will always be there for them.