Helping Mothers and Children in the Aftermath of Domestic Violence
Sue Parry, Ph.D. Coordinator, Mental Health Training Project
New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence
Living in a home in which one parent abuses the other has the potential to cause both short- and long-term harm to children. Consider that:
- Well over half of men who abuse their female partners also abuse their children.
- In many incidents of violence against the mother, a child is assaulted or endangered.
- Even very young children are much more aware of what is going on than either parent thinks. Even if they are never in the same room when a specific incident of violence occurs, they are aware of the ongoing hostility, fear, and danger, and they see the effects of physical assaults.
- Children of domestic violence abusers are at much higher risk of sexual abuse and abduction.
Following the break-up of the relationship, abusers sue for custody – and win it – more often than other fathers. Many engage in a prolonged, retaliatory custody battle that is financially ruinous, and emotionally exhausting for their former partner, and use the access to her that a shared parenting arrangement gives them to continue to try to control her through by mistreating and manipulating the children. If they admit to abusing their partner, they think it has nothing to do with how good a parent they are – and, sadly, judges, CPS workers and clinicians often agree. (Some abusers do treat their children better than they treat their partners, and some do become more responsible parents after a divorce, but it is still important to recognize that abusing a child’s mother and destroying her ability to parent is, in itself, bad parenting.)
What are abusers like as parents?
Domestic violence abusers often see their children as possessions, and take little responsibility for how their behavior affects them. They use many of the same control tactics on their children as on their partner – physical, sexual and emotional abuse; intimidation, threats, and manipulation; and apologies, promises of change and intermittent rewards. Other characteristics typical of the abuser’s parenting include:
- Authoritarian, power-oriented and irritable.
- Self-centered (e.g., jealousy when the children’s needs come first).
- Emotional distance, neglect and uninvolvement.
- Refusal to share child-rearing tasks.
- Negative role modeling.
- Failure to provide consistent nurturance, structure and supervision.
- Sabotage of the mother’s authority and ability to nurture the children.
- Age-inappropriate demands (e.g., expecting the child to take care of him).
- Boundary violations (especially sexual abuse).
- Favoritism that damages the children’s relationships with each other. (L. Bancroft and J. Silverman, The Batterer as Parent, 2002.)
How are children affected?
Not all children respond the same way to having a parent who batters. Individual siblings may have different experiences and needs depending on their age and gender, and whether or not they are directly abused, what they have actually experienced, and how frequent and severe it has been. Some abusers target one child and not another – e.g., sexually abusing a daughter, while trying to buy a son’s loyalty with special privileges. Other differences in children’s experience may be created by:
- Whether they have been forced to take a particular role in the family – e.g. as a caretaker for younger siblings, mother’s confidant, or father’s punching bag.
- How much they fear that the family will break up, or that their mother will be killed.
- How much they pick up on their siblings’ distress.
- Their other individual needs, such as health problems or academic difficulties.
- How much the abuser has damaged their individual relationship with their mother.
- How much access the individual child has to other supportive adults.
Therefore, when a woman who has left an abusive partner seeks therapeutic help, being able to help her children is often a large issue. When a mother discloses abuse, the clinician should ask…
- Are there immediate safety issues? Does she have an order of protection? Is she working with a domestic violence service provider? (If not, offer a referral.)
- How has the abuse effected her physical and mental health and relationship with her children?
- Is there an ongoing custody battle, criminal case, or involvement with Child Protective Services?
- What are the current living and parenting arrangements? Who do the children live with? How much time do they spend with each parent? Who has legal custody? How is that working? What are the visitation arrangements? Is visitation supervised? Is she concerned about the children’s safety when they are in their father’s care? How do they act when they come home from visiting him?
- What current conflicts exist around finances, parenting decisions or the children’s behavior?
- If she is seeking therapy for the child, does the abuser know about it? How has he reacted to it? Does she feel she can safely have the child in therapy, or will it be necessary to work with the child through her?
- Is she concerned about sexual abuse by the father?
If a child discloses sexual abuse by the father, the mother may feel that any step she takes can have terrible consequences – and she may be right. If she takes no action and someone else makes a report, she risks the child being removed by CPS. If she tries to protect the child from the father, the court may see her as trying to turn the child against the father, or as making false allegations to gain an advantage in the custody case. In either case, there is an increased likelihood of the court awarding custody to the abuser, and ordering the victim to supervised visitation!
It is essential, therefore that therapists make a practice of asking all mothers about domestic violence when they seek help for themselves or their children, and that those working with abused mothers, or directly with their children, connect the mothers with domestic violence services to increase their safety. This is crucial to the child’s well-being. Clinicians should also be prepared to assess, with the help of the mother, how the abuse has affected the child. Areas to look at include:
- Physical harm or risk of harm.
- The risk of the child being abducted by the abuser or removed from the mother.
- The nature and quality of the child’s relationship with the mother, and actions she has taken to try to protect the child.
- The nature and consistency of the father’s involvement with the child.
- How the child behaves with each parent. (The effects of the abuser’s behavior during visitation are likely to show up once the child is back home with their mother – this does not mean that the child’s distress or acting out is her fault.)
- The emotional impact of trauma, danger, family dissolution and custody battles.
- Developmental, social or academic problems.
- What child is learning from the abuser. To disrespect women? To blame their mother for their father’s behavior? To blame themselves for things that are not their fault? Also look at what the child may not have learned, such as respect, empathy, conflict resolution, and cooperation.
- Any protective factors and resources – especially a good relationship with the mother, and other supportive adults.
The mother’s leaving the relationship may be only the beginning of freeing herself from her partner’s power, as he is likely to engage in various forms of retaliation for many years to come – including neglecting and manipulating the children during visitation, and undermining the mother’s relationship with them. Therefore, helping the children involves, not only repairing damage the abuser has done to them before the separation, but also helping the mother find ways to both cope with the ongoing damage that he does to them and counter his negative influence on them.
This may actually be quite risky. She may be helpless to protect the children while they are in his care, and he may retaliate for any parenting decision she makes, especially if she tries to limit his influence. If she tries to help them see his abusive behavior for what it is, he will make it appear that she is trying to make them think he is a bad person, who is not worthy of their loyalty and love – or that she is making things up. This is another catch-22 for her. If he tries to break down her door, for instance, and she tells the children he has done so, he will tell them that she’s lying. If she tells them that he was just upset and wanted to talk to her, he wins. This is even more difficult when his behavior is not physically abusive. Suppose he promises them an expensive joint gift– one that he knows she cannot afford. When she says to the child, “I can’t afford this, and this is the first I’ve heard of it; he’s making promises he knows I can’t keep,” he does not need to retaliate directly. He has set it up so that the child will be disappointed and blame her for it, thus strengthening his own position as the “good” parent.
It is crucial, therefore, to evaluate every proposed intervention for both safety and parenting implications. If the mother does what you suggest, is the abuser likely to retaliate? Is he likely to see it as an excuse to assault the mother, file for custody, or try to deprive her of any access to the children at all? Custody and visitation arrangements – and therefore the abuser’s access to the mother and children – can last for many years, which makes working to help the children a very long-term process. If the mother feels she can safely bring her children in for counseling, this process will be easier, but often the therapist will not be able to meet with the children in person, because that, in itself, may be dangerous. The therapist will, instead have to help the mother find ways to help her children herself, and constantly troubleshoot the effect of actions she takes to do so.
Reprinted with permission, Mental Health News, Summer 2007.