Dear Thelma: Dad is abusive, and I'm living in fear constantly

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Dear Thelma,

I am a teen girl living with nine other family members in a single-storey house.

My parents were in an arranged marriage; they do not share even an ounce of love. I am the messenger if my father wants to say something to my mum. It has been like this for over a decade. I thinks he takes my mum for a maid.

My father really hates my mother's side of the family, but I do not know why. Over the years, he has constantly forbidden my brother and me to visit them. So my mother, brother and I always tell a lie if we go visit them. Whenever they come over, he always gives them the cold shoulder. I truly believe my mother's side are good people; they actually converse with one another. Whenever my mother's side has events, as long as my grandparents are there, we can attend.

Since young I've had trouble getting along with people. I am always scared to face others. I don't know how to talk to people. Even to my cousins from my mother's side, I've always been distant. I feel terrible that I am not able to even greet them. Until my aunty's wedding, which was the chance to meet them multiple times. It was only then I realised what I had missed all these years.

My cousins are wonderful people who could understand me when no one else could. They taught me to come out of my shell. They are the greatest gifts of my life. My cousin was the only one I shared my deepest secrets and thoughts with. From then on, I decided to become more sociable with them.

But my father kept restraining me. He yelled and threatened to beat me every time I wanted to follow my mum to my grandma's house. I was afraid of him. From my observation, I feel my entire family is afraid of him and they never confront him about his ego.

Not only that, he always forbids me from wearing dresses. He always bought me boyish and ugly shirts. I never felt like a girl even though I want to be like my friends who wear pretty dresses and use makeup. Whenever I express my dislike about his choice of clothing for me, he never listens. Even my room is shared with my mum, father and brother. I feel my privacy is invaded.

My mum is the only one who was willing to fight. But we both knew we could never overpower him. When my father wants to take us out, it's just me and my brother – and he never tells us where. And he raises his voice if we don't want to go. As if we can tell him no.

Thelma, I live in constant fear. My heart beats very fast and I breathe heavily every time my father approaches me. I am so afraid that I considered threatening him with my life to stop feeling like this. But in the end I was a coward who couldn't bring myself to do it, and I knew it was wrong.

I am so desperate I considered even the stupidest solutions.

Every time I cried in pain, he never acknowledged it but pretended nothing ever happened. It is as though I am just a child who cries after getting scolded for doing something wrong. I am fearful to even express my pain.

I don't like home; I don't want to live there. Sometimes I just want to run away but I have nowhere to go. I don't know what to do anymore. I really want to be free but I don't know how. What should I do?

Restrained Teen

Dear Restrained Teen,

I'm so sorry you're having a bad time. Let's identify the issues.

Your dad is often angry, and he threatens violence. This is unacceptable.

I'm not sure how old a teen you are, but you say your peers wear makeup. So I think you might be almost an adult. Even so, as you are at home, and there are also siblings, I urge you to call any of the numbers highlighted above. They are professionals and will help you talk it through and figure out what needs to be done.

I suspect that you may be nervous, and worry about judgement, so here are my thoughts on what may be happening.

Your parents had an arranged marriage which didn't work. While that's upsetting, they are still parents. That means they have to work together to raise their kids.

Putting you in the middle is not right. Their troubles are not yours. You are their child, and you cannot be involved in their marriage.

Your parents need to learn to communicate respectfully with each other. If they have fights, they sort it out themselves or ask their peers.

So the first step is to have the professionals deal with the threats of violence, and the second is to consult with your parents on how to improve their communication so you are no longer in the middle.

As this has been going on for years, this won't be a quick fix. Although their marriage isn't your problem, I think it's useful here to discuss what may be the issue, so that you have some insight.

I suspect that in addition to their personal unhappiness, money is a problem. You share a bedroom, for example.

Generally speaking, many people link their personal value to their income. If they're not lucky enough to earn a fortune, they think they're failing and this makes them angry and ashamed.

Also, men from traditional backgrounds are typically taught it's OK to show anger but not any other emotion.

This combination is a problem. The truth is that personal worth and income aren't related at all. And to deny a person their emotion is cruel. We are not machines.

But if your dad has that mindset, it may explain why he's frustrated and angry. And he takes that out on his family, including you.

It is possible that your mum is tired of fighting, of his anger, and therefore she's given up. It's not right, it's her job to make sure her kids are safe, but it's human.

I'm not excusing their actions, but if this is so, they will find support from the professionals, and be happier in themselves and with their family.

But, to get to the main point, which is you.

Here is the good stuff. You are articulate and write a good letter, so you're educated. You have connected with the rest of your family and you like them. Also, you're developing social skills as you are growing up. That is all excellent news.

I suggest you plan your future. Work into a position where you have a trade or skill, can find a job and become independent. Once you do that, you can choose your own path and be happy.

To get there, talk to your teachers and counsellors, and also ask your aunt and cousins for advice.

If you are an older teen and officially adult, that can happen fairly quickly. In addition, explore whether you spend more time with your mum's family. It may be a temporary stay or regular visits. It is not good to live in fear, so getting out is important. Discuss it with the counsellors.

Also, about the clothes. I'm guessing here, but it's something that has come up in therapy.

Pretty girl clothes are typically expensive and of poor quality. Boy clothes are priced affordably and are made to last. It is possible that your dad can't afford to buy dresses for you, especially as they won't wear well.

It may also be that he doesn't want you to grow up. In some traditional families, daughters are married off with dowries and it's a huge expense. In short, he may think that if you look like a kid, he doesn't need to treat you as a young woman.

Again, I'm telling you this in case it gives you new perspective. I may be wrong!

I suggest you talk to your mum. Dressing to develop your identity is a normal part of development, so she should talk to your dad, because it's part of parenting.

Again, you can buy what you like when you are independent. If you're not quite there yet, but old enough to get a part-time job, that may be a solution. If you're very young, ask if you can have one pretty dress, and promise to look after it carefully.

For the long-term, once the yelling stops, you can hopefully connect better with your parents. Again, you're their child, not their friend or peer, but if you want to be closer, there will need to be conversation and healing.

Talk through how that may work with a counsellor. However, I suggest you start with the positives. They provided you with a home and education, so tell them that you appreciate it.

I hope that soon there will be no more threats of violence, less anger, and that you will be independent. If it sounds a lot, please know that many people go through this and end up living very happy lives. So please reach out. You deserve joy!

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