WRITTEN BY JASMYN BROWN, AURORA SMALDONE & REBECCA HOFFMANN FRANCES
CONTRIBUTIONS BY JUAN CARLOS AREAN
The impact of DV on a child’s relationship with a parent who uses violence
All children and youth who live with domestic violence (DV) are affected by the experience. The nature and extent of the effects vary greatly. Some children are severely traumatized while others are able to cope well, and go on to live healthy, productive lives. When children experience DV in their home, the safety and security of their relationships with caregivers can be impacted (Fraiberg & Brazelton, 1996). This is especially true of a child’s relationship with a parent who uses violence (Davies & Cummings, 1994)(Davies & Cummings, 1998). According to attachment theory, children are driven to form, and maintain, secure relationships with those who care for them (Bowlby, 1973). Caregivers (attachment figures) who offer contact, reassurance, and comfort to a child – particularly when a child feels distress – facilitate healthy child development, emotional regulation, and a solid blueprint for future relationships (Bowlby, 1973). When a parent is violent, however, a child’s attachment to that parent is threatened (Davies & Cummings, 1988) (Davies & Cummings, 1994). It does not matter if the violence is used toward the child directly or not. Experiencing direct or indirect abuse at the hands of a caregiver can cause a child to internalize feelings of rejection, abandonment, and insecurity (Davies & Cummings, 1988) (Davies & Cummings, 1994). This presents a potent conflict for many children – an attachment figure as a source of danger. When a child is fearful of a caregiver who uses violence, the child may avoid the perpetrator and be reluctant to trust others (Gustafsson et al., 2017). In the aftermath of family violence, it takes a great deal of work to ensure a child’s safety and to rebuild a relationship between a child and a parent using violence. Safety is paramount and relationship repair is not possible or appropriate in every case.
Is rebuilding a parent-child relationship always the goal?
The belief that parents have the right to parent their children and that two parents are better than one is deeply embedded in our U.S. culture and legal system. These assumptions often drive decisions about whether an abusive parent is entitled to a future relationship with a child*(Austin & Drozd, 2012). Despite this, there may be situations in which it is not in a child’s best interest to maintain a relationship with a parent who used violence. Before making the decision of “WHEN” and “HOW” to rebuild the abusive parent-child relationship, it is important to ask “IF”. Furthermore, the child might not want to have contact with the parent who used violence and/or the non-abusive parent might have legitimate reasons for limiting contact. As an initial inquiry, it is important to consider whether eliminating, limiting, or postponing the relationship is best for the child.
Considerations for rebuilding a parent-child relationship after a parent uses violence:
Indications of ongoing/higher risk:
- The use of violence is ongoing and/or severe
- The parent perpetrated other types of abuse (extreme emotional abuse and coercive behavior, sexual abuse, etc.) in addition to physical violence
- The abusive parent denies using violence and/or refuses to take responsibility for its consequences(Checklist to Promote Perpetrator Accountability in Dependency Cases Involving Domestic Violence, 2011)
- The abusive parent blames others for the violence, including their culture and/or upbringing.
- The child experiences trauma reactions as a result of contact with the parent (Austin & Drozd, 2012)
- The abusive parent exhibits strong and or rigid patriarchal, narcissistic, and/or misogynistic attitudes (Gatfield, 2021)
Indications of lower risk:
- The abusive parent demonstrates motivation to end the use of violence, improve parenting, and repair the relationship with the child (Gatfield, 2021)
- The abusive parent starts to take responsibility for the violence and decreases denial, minimization, and justification.
- The abusive parent has the capacity to empathize with their child’s experience and embraces a child-centered parenting approach (Gatfield, 2021)
- The abusive parent can identify values in their culture that reject violence and abuse
- The abusive parent exhibits motivation to access offered resources and supports including programs for people who use violence.
Note: In addition to assessing risk, it is also essential to determine what children and partners want and value in terms of future connection and contact with a previously violent parent (Gatfield, 2021). These perspectives can change over time and should be given weight along with risk-assessment indicators when making decisions about whether repair work should be initiated (Gatfield, 2021).
For some children who have experienced DV, culturally relevant, evidence-based trauma treatment can offer vital support. Experiencing violence can be extremely traumatic for a child and have lasting impacts but it’s important to remember that all children are impacted differently and have different needs. Not all children need clinical or mental health services to heal from the experience. However, all children need culturally relevant opportunities to heal free from ongoing experiences of violence. It is important that a safe and trusted adult be supportive and participate in the therapy (if recommended by the therapist). If multiple children in a family are impacted, it is generally best that each undergo their own course of therapy. This is especially true if the affected children are at different developmental ages, experienced the trauma differently, or have different relationships with their parents.
Therapy with the abusive parent is not recommended before a child receives individual or dyadic therapy with the survivor parent. Once the child and parent have completed their own therapy (individually and/or together) they can potentially have family or dyadic therapy (abusive parent and child) to improve their relationship. Children can also benefit from program models that utilize a group approach – allowing children to connect with peers that have had similar experiences and cultural background. It is important to consider what interventions the abusive parent might benefit from prior to engaging with their child(ren) as well.
Culturally relevant therapy, peer support or other supportive services for the survivor parent can also be beneficial. Parenting is difficult and complex after DV. It is important for the survivor to have a space to heal from the experience of violence and also receive parenting support after violence. Therapy and peer support groups can help navigate these challenging relationships. Learn more about parenting after DV
Parenting plan considerations:
It takes time for a child to heal from trauma. To recover, they need to have space from the source of trauma. This does not necessarily mean that a parent who used violence will always be traumatizing to the child. What it means is that the child may need a period of time during which they do not have contact with the abusive parent. A child’s therapist, in close communication with the non-abusive parent and the child, can be helpful in recommending a specific length of time and helping to establish parameters for resuming contact.
During a “no-contact” period, the abusive parent can take steps to prepare for reparation with the child by:
Stopping the use of all physical and sexual violence and significantly reducing other types of abuse (emotional, financial, coercive control) (Arean & Davis, 2007)
Modeling positive parenting and co-parenting behaviors
Decreasing denial, blaming, and justification for the violence
Taking responsibility for the impact that the violence had on the partner and the child and accepting the consequences for the abuse (Humphreys & Hegarty, 2018)
Participating in DV-informed therapy and or a program for people who use violence to determine why violence was used and to learn ways to avoid violence in the future
Participating in DV-informed therapy and or a program for people who use violence to understand the impact violence has had on the child and to learn new ways of parenting
At the therapist’s discretion, begin family therapy with the child to heal this relationship or consider dyadic therapy with the abusive parent.
If and when a child does resume contact with an abusive parent, visits should typically start in small amounts of time to ensure safety. If available, the use of supervised visitation and safe exchange programs can increase safety and minimize contact between the abusive parent and survivor parent if warranted. It is not recommended that overnight visits begin right away (NCJFCJ, 2012). Assess how the child responds to shorter visits. If the child is thriving, visits can most likely continue safely and expand.
Through all of this it is important that the child and the non-abusive parent have a method for expressing how they are doing and what they want from the parent who used violence. Individual and group therapy in addition to peer support are wonderful places for this expression as is a relationship with a safe and trusted adult – most often the survivor parent.
All of these steps for relationship repair take time because each step builds on the one before it. The abusive parent (or sometimes the court, or other interested parties) may express concern that a slow pace will weaken the parent-child relationship. In fact, it is quite the opposite. This diligent repair work is critical to developing a healthy and sustainable parent-child relationship and to minimizing a child’s exposure to trauma.
In addition to clinical interventions, there are many other ways to build protective factors and support resiliency among parent and child survivors.
As a therapist working with children exposed to domestic violence, I have seen remarkable transformations of the relationship between perpetrator parents and their children. I remember working with one family in particular. A perpetrating father, and his children, went 18 months without seeing one another in the aftermath of domestic violence. At first the children expressed that they did not want to see their father ever again. The father dove into therapy with a fervent desire to have a relationship with his children. Over time, the children saw that their dad was working hard to make changes. They saw that he was committed to being a better father and was willing to make amends with them and show that he could do better. He had experienced domestic violence when he was a child and he was committed to ending this pattern in his family, in part by taking responsibility for his actions. By the end of 18 months the children were willing to have visits and these visits went very well. The children, who were closely monitored when visits began, did not have trauma reactions in the presence of dad or in the aftermath of visits. But even more than that they experienced something amazing – they watched dad prove that they were important enough for him to shed his history and become a new dad. Not only were these kids now in relationship with a healthy dad, but hopefully they will not resort to violence in their relationships because they are learning from dad new and healthier ways to love.
- Parenting by Men Who Use Violence
- How Do You Want Your Kids to Remember You? A Workbook for Fathers Who Have Harmed Their Partners and Families and Want to Change
- Fatherhood and Domestic Violence Webcast Series
- http://Relational and Systemic Accountability Framework for Working with People Who Use Violence
- Healing and Supporting Fathers: Principles, Practices, and Resources for Fatherhood Programs to Help Address and Prevent Domestic Violence
- Podcast Series on Working with Abusive Partners
- Strategies to Support Children and Teens
- Protective Factors and Resiliency
- Parenting After Violence - Digital Download
- Five Children’s Books That Discuss Domestic Violence
- Domestic Violence Books: Children's Books
- Plan for Safety: Your safety is our first priority.
- 10 Things to Know About Parenting Plans in Cases Involving Domestic Violence
- Guide for Engaging & Supporting Parents Affected by Domestic Violence: Enhancing Parenting Capacity & Strengthening Parent-Child Bonds
- Restorative Justice Seeks to Heal Families Facing Domestic Violence
- Parenting After Violence: A Guide for Practitioners
- Restorative Parenting: Relationship Building in the Shadow of Domestic Violence (PowerPoint
- Parenting Children and Youth Who Have Experienced Abuse or Neglect