Supporting Victimized Parents
Domestic abuse impacts parenting. An offender’s controlling, abusive behavior both complicates and undermines their partner’s ability to parent. The victim is forced to walk a tight-rope — attempting to meet the abuser’s demands in order to create a measure of calm and safety while also attempting to meet their children’s need for attention and nurturing.
Understanding this dynamic and keeping the following information in mind will go a long way toward helping a survivor and their children.
- Begin with the assumption that the behavior of a victimized parent is reasonable and that anyone might do the same in similar circumstances.
- Tell them that you understand how difficult it can be to share parenting with an abuser.
- Reassure them that you want to understand the situation from their perspective.
- Don’t cast blame for unsuccessful attempts to protect their children or to seek help.
- Let them know how important they are to their children’s resiliency.
- Help restore confidence in their own parenting.
- Help them identify and connect with social supports.
Find occasions when you can communicate positive messages about them and their children. As a survivor works to regain their parental footing, it’s helpful for them to hear supportive feedback and comments like:
- Stopping their exposure to the abuse was the best thing you could do for your children.
- Learning to be a parent is a life-long process.
- There are no perfect parents: we all have strengths and weaknesses.
- You can change the lives of your children for the better.
- You can make up for lost time: start today.
- Single parents can be good parents too.
- A mother who is a survivor can be a good role model for her son, and a father who is a survivor can be a good role model for his daughter.
- You can model and teach non-violent problem solving, attitudes, and behavior.
- Living with violence as a child is not a “life sentence” for a bad future.
- Children are resilient and can thrive.
- There are people to help.
Understanding Protective Behaviors
Victims work to protect their children in a variety of ways. However, their protective actions may be invisible to observers, difficult to understand, or may look like poor parenting. In addition, victims who are being abused may be reluctant to explain themselves to outsiders, fearing that the abusive partner will retaliate, that others will misunderstand their behavior and take action against them, or that they simply won’t be believed.
Examples of misunderstood behaviors are:
- Avoids angering the abuser by placating and complying with their demands, and urges the children to do the same.
- Tries to distract and soothe the children and normalize the situation.
- Avoids provoking or escalating an abuser by keeping the abuse secret.
- Assumes blame for family problems.
- Arranges for the children to spend time away from home.
- Tries to reason with the abuser, challenge the violent behavior, or improve the relationship.
- Endures a physical or sexual assault and property damage by the abuser so they will not hurt the children. May instigate a confrontation with the abuser in order to head off growing tension or to deflect attention away from the children.
- Severely disciplines the children to avoid worse punishment by the abuser.
- May use coping mechanisms like denial or escapism in order to continue functioning and caring for their children.
An additional protective behavior is choosing to stay with or return to an abuser. Such decisions can be informed by a combination of a victim’s beliefs and very real, practical concerns about what will happen if they end the relationship.
Victims may fear:
- They and/or their children will be stalked, assaulted or killed. (The most dangerous time for victims is when they end the abusive relationship or make efforts to leave.)
- The abusive partner will kidnap the children or be granted sole custody.
- It will be difficult or impossible to find adequate, affordable housing.
- The separation-induced economic instability will negatively affect the children.
- There will be negative effects of relocating the children and of disrupting their ties to important social supports such as school, extended family, friends, and neighborhood and community resources.
- They will be less able to monitor the abuser’s contact with their children. (Most abusive partners 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 to undermine the victim’s parenting.)
- Rearing their children as a single parent may have negative results.
- The children will choose to align themselves with the abuser.
Ways that Abusers Undermine the Victimized Parent
They Foster Disrespect for the Victimized Parent and Their Parenting Authority
|Tactic||Interferes with the victimized parent’s attempts to create structure; contradicts rules; rewards the child’s disrespectful behavior; ridicules and portrays their partner as incompetent in front of the child. After separating, the assailant competes for the child’s loyalty by making their home a fun place with no rules; permits activities disapproved of by the victimized parent (e.g., violent videos); may alienate the child; may seek custody as vengeance.|
Children may come to feel that the victimized parent does not care about them or is unreliable; may see the parent as helpless, down trodden, and stupid. They may take on the abuser’s view of the parent as unworthy of respect and as a legitimate target of abuse.
They Negatively Influence the Relationship Between the Victimized Parent and Child
|Tactic||May prevent the victimized parent from comforting a distressed child; socially isolates the family which restricts opportunities to involve the children in extra-curricular activities.|
For the victimized parent, the abuse can foster depression, anxiety, poor sleeping, anger, and loss of confidence so that they are less able to focus on the children; may increase the likelihood of reactive or permissive parenting. For the children, they may distance themselves from the victimized parent; may develop contempt for the victimized parent or be ashamed to be associated with them. The child may assume the role of abuser, sometimes to win their approval.
They Use the Child as a Weapon Against the Victimized Parent
|Tactic||During the relationship, may inflict neglectful or other harmful behavior on the child (e.g., destroying holiday presents) to hurt the victimized parent; deliberately endanger the child; threaten to kidnap or kill the child, leave the family without money, or call authorities. After the separation, may enlist the child’s support to pressure the victimized parent to reconcile; uses the child to communicate with or spy on their parent; may seek custody as vengeance.|
Children are drawn into the abuser’s behavior pattern and become their proxy for controlling the other parent.
Over time the abuser’s manipulation breaks down the victimized parent’s self-esteem, causes them to live in chronic fear, creates health problems, and distorts their view of the situation. As a parent, the victim may:
- Believe they are inadequate.
- Lose the respect of some or all of their children.
- Believe the excuses the abuser provides for their behavior (e.g. the victim caused the abuse; the abuse is the result of alcohol use or stress; the behavior is culturally or religiously appropriate; men and boys should have more privileges and power in the family).
- Adapt their parenting style in response to abuser’s parenting style (e.g., becomes too permissive or authoritarian; makes unreasonable demands on children to placate the abuser).
- Find their capacity to manage is thwarted or overwhelmed (e.g., depression, anxiety, poor sleeping, etc.; unable to plan timing of pregnancies; denied sufficient money to meet children’s basic needs for food, etc.; develop a reactive parenting style).
countering an Abuser’s Influence
Common – yet harmful – beliefs held by those who interact with the victimized parent can actually reinforce an abuser’s messages and actions. When those around a victim replace misconceptions with fact, they are better able to support the victimized parent, prevent the abuser from causing further damage, and heal the family.
MYTH: Children will recognize the non-abusing parent as the victim and the offender as the cause of the problems and abuse.
Children can blame the victimized parent as much or more than they blame the abuser.
Young children don’t recognize the power imbalance between their parents. Both adults seem equally powerful to them. Toddlers or pre-schoolers live mostly in the present, so an abusive parent who gives a nice present will be quickly forgiven for a recent upsetting incident. Not until they approach adolescence will most children develop a more adult-like understanding of the dynamics of violence and abuse. Still, older children may be angry at and blame a parent for bringing an abusive partner into the home, not protecting them from the abuse, staying after the abusive behavior was evident, or reconciling with the abuser after leaving.
MYTH: Children would hate a parent who abused them or who abused their other parent.
Children can love a parent who is abusive to them or their other parent.
An abuser who is seen as an unfit parent by most adults can be adored and respected by their children. Over time, some children will grow closer to and identify more with the abuser than with the victimized parent, perhaps believing the rationalizations about the abuse. Once gone from the family, children may grieve the offender’s absence as they would any parental separation. For children too young to comprehend cause and effect, the separation seems to be caused by the victimized parent who leaves the relationship, rather than the abuser whose behavior made the relationship unsafe.
MYTH: When the abusive parent is out of the picture, any family problems the children have will get better.
When the abusive parent leaves the home, children may be more out-of-control, angry, sad, or in conflict with others, including siblings.
Ending a child’s exposure to violence at home is the single best intervention. However, if that exposure has been lengthy, problems may not evaporate. Strained family dynamics are linked to many factors including:
The Absence of an Authoritarian Parent
On the surface, authoritarian parenting seems effective by keeping a child “in line.” However, this can actually inhibit the development of a child’s internal controls which allow them to regulate their own behavior and impulses. When an authoritarian parent leaves and with less ability to regulate themselves, a child may misbehave.
Struggles by the Victimized Parent to Establish Parental Authority
An offender can undermine the victimized parent in their children’s eyes. When the abuser is gone, the children may resist the victim’s parental authority.
The Impact of Crisis and Transition Experienced by the Family
Leaving an abusive partner is often associated with a decline in the standard of living, changing schools, disruption in a child’s peer relationships, residential moves, and perhaps one or more stays in a shelter. Such disruption can have a negative influence on a child’s behavior and some children will blame the victimized parent for the unwelcome changes.
1 Excerpted and adapted from: Promising Futures. Based on content derived from Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and “Understanding Women’s Experiences Parenting in the Context of Domestic Violence”, Jaffe & Crooks, 2005.
2 Excerpted and adapted from: “Helping Children Thrive/ Supporting Woman Abuse Survivors as Mothers: A Resource to Support Parenting.” Linda L. Baker, Ph.D. C.Psych. & Alison J. Cunningham, M.A.(Crim.). Centre for Children & Families in the Justice System, London Family Court Clinic, Inc., London ON. 2004.
3 Excerpted and adapted from: Helping Children Thrive/ Supporting Woman Abuse Survivors as Mothers: A Resource to Support Parenting.” Linda L. Baker, Ph.D. C.Psych. & Alison J. Cunningham, M.A.(Crim.). Centre for Children & Families in the Justice System, London Family Court Clinic, Inc., London ON. 2004. Based on content derived from: Bancroft, L. (Winter 2002). The Batterer as a Parent. Synergy, 6(1), 6-8. (Newsletter of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges).
4 Excerpted and adapted from: “Little Eyes, Little Ears: How Violence Against a Mother Shapes Children as They Grow.” Alison Cunningham, M.A.(Crim.) Linda Baker, Ph.D. C.Psych.; Centre for Children & Families in the Justice System, London Family Court Clinic, Inc., London ON. 2007.