The impact of domestic violence on mother child relationships

When coming into contact with mothers experiencing domestic violence, health professionals need to be aware of how perpetrators and the dynamics of the violence itself work to undermine the relationship between women and their children. Without such awareness it can be easy to make judgements about their mothering that fail to recognise that they are doing their best under extremely difficult circumstances.

Whilst not all mothers who have been abused have a diminished parenting capacity, they may have difficulty in being engaged parents. A mother who is struggling with the experience of being abused may find it difficult to be an energetic, patient parent, to focus attention on her children and to keep track of all the various details that childcare and schooling require. Also, if her parenting is being heavily criticised by her partner, she may develop an indecisive parenting style. Depression, anxiety and substance abuse are just some of the impacts women experiencing intimate partner violence will often present with to health providers. These symptoms of abuse mean that women’s mothering is negatively affected even further as they struggle to care for their children whilst being targets of violence.

In addition, perpetrators of domestic violence can and do typically shape the children’s view of themselves and their mother and condition children to misinterpret the abuse that they observe in a way that leads them to blame their mother, minimise the abuse and distance themselves from her. This distancing is sometimes referred to as ‘maternal alienation’, whereby perpetrators of abuse deliberately try to destroy the relationship between children and their mother. Emotional abuse, name-calling, intimidation and being subjected to sexual jealousy by the partner works to belittle women in the eyes of their children.

A number of studies looking at mothers’ experiences found that women experiencing domestic violence had a diminished sense of control over their mothering. The loss of control over mothering was often made worse because of their partners’ control of financial and material resources, which left women with few resources to look after their children.

Health professionals are ideally placed to use their contact with victims of domestic violence as opportunities to acknowledge and validate their difficulties and to support relationships between mothers and their children.

For more information on how to ask about domestic violence and best practice responses visit HealthPathways Sydney. Women experiencing domestic violence and professionals working in the domestic violence space can also gain support by calling 1800 RESPECT (National Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Counselling Service) or 1800 656 463 (NSW Domestic Violence Line).

Daniela Francavilla Child Protection Educator Child Protection Strategy Unit, SLHD