Supporting Parenting

picture of mother looking at childThe National Domestic Violence Hotline:

1-800-799-SAFE (7233)

Hotline advocates are available 24/7 for victims and anyone calling on their behalf to provide crisis intervention, safety planning, information and referrals to agencies in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Assistance is available in English and Spanish with access to more than 170 languages through interpreter services.

Parenting by Mothers Experiencing Domestic Violence

Living with violence can affect a woman’s parenting in both indirect and direct ways. Some researchers have found that women who are victims parent as effectively as their non-abused counterparts, in spite of the obstacles they face (Holden &Ritchie, 1991; Edleson, Mbilinyi, &Shetty, 2003).

According to Understanding Women’s Experiences Parenting in the Context of Domestic Violence, (Jaffe, P. & Crooks, C.,2005):

Victimization can erode a woman’s parenting. For example:

  • She may focus on safety, survival and meeting the abuser’s needs more than nurturing her children.
  • She may suffer mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse or poor physical health triggered by the abuse.
  • Her functioning as a parent is undermined by the abuser’s interference, by the impact of his degrading behavior, and by the resulting erosion of her authority with the children.
  • Domestic Violence induced stress may result in child neglect or maltreatment. Research shows a women’s parenting often improves once she and her children are safe.
  • Mothers may deny the extent of the effects of domestic violence on their children.
  • A mother’s shame and guilt about the abuse may inhibit her communication with her children.
  • The abuser’s dominance prevents a mother from parenting as she chooses or negotiating parenting with him.

In order to survive, victims of domestic violence are forced to focus on their abuser and put his needs first. Yet many women find ways to counteract the effects of domestic violence on their children and parent differently behind his back. This puts victims in an impossible situation, as they cannot both meet an abusive partner’s demands and make the choices and sacrifices necessary for good parenting. Most women who are mothers say that their decisions, from handling daily events to deciding whether to leave their partners, are governed by concern for their children.

All mothers experiencing domestic violence make efforts which they think will protect their children, minimize further violence, and mitigate the impact of living with domestic abuse. They are faced with limited choices, and are often left to choose the better of several bad choices. Efforts by mothers to protect their children may be difficult to understand or assess. Their protective actions may be invisible to observers, difficult to understand, or may look like poor parenting. In addition, mothers who are being abused may be reluctant to explain themselves to outsiders, fearing that the abusive partner will retaliate or that others will misunderstand their behavior and take action against them.

Here are some examples of actions which could be misunderstood that a woman experiencing domestic violence might take to protect herself and her children from more serious abuse:

  • Avoids angering the abuser by agreeing with him, pleasing and placating him, and complying with his demands. Urges the children to do the same.
  • Keeps the abuse secret.
  • In a chaotic and unsafe environment, she tries to distract and soothe the children and normalize the situation.
  • Avoids or lies to friends, family and professionals.
  • Assumes blame for family problems.
  • Arranges for children to spend time away from home.
  • Tries to reason with the abuser, challenge his behavior or improve the relationship.
  • Prevents violence by encouraging the abuser to drink until he passes out.
  • Endures physical assault, sexual assault and property damage by the abuser so he will not hurt the children.
  • Uses alcohol and drugs to numb her own pain and continue to function.
  • Uses denial, escapism and disassociation to cope with the abuse.
  • Severely disciplines the children herself to avoid worse punishment by the abuser.
  • Participates in or lies about the abuser¡¦s criminal activity or abuse of the children.
  • Uses force against the abuser to defend herself and her children.
  • Stays with or returns to the abuser to avoid stalking and escalation of the violence if they are living apart.

Suggestions for Talking with Women who are victims of domestic violence about their efforts as a parent:

  • Begin with the assumption that her behavior is logical, and that anyone might do the same in her circumstances.
  • Tell her that you understand how difficult it can be to share parenting with an abuser.
  • Reassure her that you want to understand her situation from her perspective.
  • Ask her what the abuser has done to manipulate her and the children and undermine her role as parent.
  • Ask what actions she has taken to protect her children and how she altered her behavior to avoid violence. Answering this question might be difficult for her because of her defensiveness, fear of reprisals, or lack of faith in her own parenting.
  • Don’t blame her for attempts to protect her children or to seek help that were not successful.
  • Help her identify and connect with social supports. Isolating her and making him her only point of reference is how the abusive man has controlled her and degraded her parenting.
  • Let her know how important she is to her children’s resiliency. Help restore her belief in her own parenting.

Why Mothers Experiencing Domestic Violence Stay:

Many women stay in violent relationships because they think it will be best for their children. They may make this choice because:

  • They have heard about the risk factors for children of single parents, and believe that any father figure is better than none at all.
  • They are worried about finding adequate, affordable housing and the effects on their children of separation-induced economic instability.
  • They are concerned about the effects of relocation on their children and of disrupting their ties to important social supports such as school, extended family, friends and neighborhood and community resources.
  • They are worried that they will be unable to monitor the abusive man’s contact with their children. Some separated abusive men are granted unsupervised visitation. Risks to children of unsupervised contact with an abusive parent may include physical, psychological and sexual abuse, parenting that is self-centered and neglectful, and efforts by the man to undermine the mother’s parenting.
  • They fear that the abusive partner will kidnap the children or be granted sole custody. Although abusive men are awarded custody of their children at the same rate as non-abusers, they are twice as likely to seek custody. Consequently, after divorce, children of abusive fathers are twice as likely to be living in the custody their abusive parent.
  • They fear that they will be stalked, assaulted or killed. The rate of domestic assault, including homicide, increases when victims leave partners and remains elevated for two years.

This information was developed by the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence and reprinted with their permission.

The information above can also be found in “Understanding Women’s Experiences Parenting in the Context of Domestic Violence”, Jaffe & Crooks, 2005