Domestic Abuse and its impact on mothering
Domestic Abuse can seriously impact on a mothers’ ability to parent her children.
Abusive men can cause significant damage to what should be a happy and natural process. Mothering can be undermined so badly by this abuse that it can have long-term consequences to both mother and child. Women often blame themselves when they know their children are suffering and this can undermine their confidence in their parenting abilities.
Understanding how Domestic Abuse has interfered with the mothering process is an important first step to improving the situation and taking positive steps towards recovery.
Domestic abuse often undermines a mother’s confidence.
Being belittled, degraded, insulted and put down on a habitual basis often leads to mothers questioning their competence, doubting their abilities and losing their confidence. Abusive men may be derogatory specifically about their partner’s parenting skills too. This can be particularly damaging to mothers.
Confidence is often needed to perform well, and parenting is no different. Loss of confidence can make mothering feel more challenging. Mothers who are undermined in this way will feel alone and unsupported.
“The first time Anna’s nappy leaked he blamed me for not putting it on properly. When she got colic he said it was because I wasn’t holding the bottle at the right angle. When she started walking, she fell and bumped her head – he told me this was my fault for not supervising her more closely and threatened to report me to social care. I felt terrible, it didn’t occur to me I was being manipulated and abused, I lost all confidence in getting anything right.”
Abusive fathers may encourage children to abuse their mothers. They may insult the mother in front of children. Not only is this abusive to the mother but it is emotionally burdening and damaging to children too.
Children will feel upset, conflicted and confused when their mother is insulted. Abusive fathers may go further and expect children in to agree with him when abusing their mother. Sometimes this is done in a very open and hostile manner, other times it is more subtle. He may laugh at any perceived mistake his partner makes and highlight this to the children, encouraging them to agree that she is stupid. He may encourage them to believe that she can’t be relied upon and set her up to fail in front of the children.
This behaviour takes a more sinister turn when he encourages children to join him in abusing their mother. This can lead to mothers being treated disrespectfully by their children and it will undermine her authority. When this happens, properly parenting children and imposing the boundaries they need becomes almost impossible.
“Stupid bitch you’ve fucked it up again, was a phrase my children heard throughout their childhoods. When they refused to do as I asked, ignored me and paid me no respect as their mother, I guess it was hardly a surprise.”
Financial abuse can negatively impact mothering.
Raising children is expensive, and Domestic Abuse almost always has a financial element to it.
Abusive men employ a variety of tactics to financially abuse mothers, whether they’re still in the relationship or after they have left. From keeping the mother so short of money that she feels forced to use foodbanks, to refusing to pay child maintenance, mothers are frequently financially punished.
Without adequate money, a mother will be restricted in how she feeds her children, how she clothes them and the experiences she is able to give them. She might feel she is failing them when unable to afford school trips or birthday parties, and this may negatively impact how adequate she feels as a mother. When children are living in poverty due to financial abuse, it can impact their social, emotional and cognitive outcomes as well as negatively influencing their behaviour. Mothers will often sacrifice their own needs to provide basics for their children.
“We lived in a big house but Tim kept me so short of money I couldn’t afford to pay for school trips or music lessons. The school will subsidise these things when there is a need, but I didn’t feel I was in a position to ask. Tim was a GP and everyone knows they’re well paid. I felt terrible when the children missed out and I blamed myself for not standing up to Tim, but he frightened me.”
Abusive men may encourage misogyny in their children.
Bullying fathers who believe in enforcing gender stereotypes and expect women to stay at home carrying out menial tasks while they dictate and control, may encourage misogyny in their children. He may shout to his crying 6-year-old son, “Man up, don’t be a pussy.”
He may expect his daughter to help her mother in the kitchen, call her stupid and only praise her for her appearance. The children will have unhealthy role models and may expect to take on these gender stereotypes in later life. This gender stereotypical behaviour, especially when accompanied by Domestic Abuse, can have a very damaging impact on a woman’s authority over her own children, particularly her sons.
“The first time my son told me to get him a drink without saying please I was shocked. Now I’m used to it and I can’t challenge him because his dad supports this behaviour.”
The damage caused by feeding children junk food and failing to impose boundaries.
This is a dynamic very often seen following the ending of an abusive relationship when children spend time with their father. Abusive men may deliberately over-indulge their children with the sole purpose of undermining their mother.
Habitually feeding children junk food, allowing continual screen use and refusing to impose boundaries including bedtimes can have several detrimental consequences. Children may favour their father and resist their mother when she tries to feed them healthy food and set appropriate bedtimes. Behaviour can be more challenging as children struggle with dual standards. Children may be very tired following a weekend with their father and not be properly fit for school on a Monday morning. If she complains to him, this may be counterproductive as abusive men are highly motivated to continue to punish their former partners even after separation, seemingly perfectly happy to use the children to this end.
“The children came home every other Sunday exhausted and in a terrible mood. They’d eaten sweets and not slept properly all weekend. I had to manage the aftermath of this.”
Traumatised children may display challenging behaviour.
When children witness Domestic Abuse, this is classed as significant harm in UK law. It is emotionally abusive and damaging to children. Children may feel overwhelmed and unable to cope when listening to their father physically and emotionally abusing their mother. Children sometimes internalise guilt, believing they are in some way to blame. They may berate themselves when they feel unable to protect their mother. They might be very frightened themselves – we know that child abuse is more common when there is also Domestic Abuse.
Traumatised children often exhibit difficult and challenging behaviour both at home and at school.
They may be clingy and anxious, challenging and aggressive, they may struggle to sleep and often have disruptive behaviour and poor attainment at school. Not only will their mother have many worries associated with their trauma, but she is also likely to find managing their behaviour difficult, particularly when the abusive father is still having a threatening and negative influence over the family.
“Gemma’s behaviour was awful. She was so clingy it was difficult for me to manage my life, I even had to sleep with her because she was afraid of being alone. Dropping her off at school was difficult but the teachers were really helpful. Dropping her off with her dad was just terrible, but there was a court order in place so I didn’t have a choice. I spent the rest of the week giving her everything she asked for to try to make it up to her.”
Mothers may neglect their own needs when damaged by abuse.
Domestic Abuse often makes women believe they don’t matter, that they’re unworthy and undeserving of good things. When failing to prioritise their own needs, self-care may be neglected and low mood often become a feature. Children look up to their mothers as role models so it’s important for mothers to show that they matter too.
When mothers neglect their needs, children will not be seeing a positive role model. They may worry about their mother and this can be emotionally burdening to them. Egocentric as they often are, children still like to know that their mother is happy, healthy, has friends and interests.
At an extreme, school refusal may be seen in children who have excessive concerns about their mothers. They may feel the need to stay at home to protect their mother and look after her. It is also seen when children worry their mother may be abused by her partner when they are at school. This is not a healthy dynamic and is emotionally burdening to children.
“The abuse made me lose interest in things. My life closed in, I stopped seeing friends and I forgot what used to make me happy”.
Mothers may feel guilty that their children have witnessed Domestic Abuse and over-indulge them to compensate.
Feeling desperately sorry for children because of the trauma they have suffered, mothers often try to over-compensate by giving too much and expecting too little. While this may be a normal response to wanting to make things better, it won’t do children any good long-term. Children need to be raised so that they develop into self-sufficient, responsible adults, and this won’t happen if they are given everything they ask for.
Mothers may be tempted to over-indulge children when separated from the father and discovering that he gives them too much when they visit him. In his care, they may develop an expectation of having treats and junk food, few boundaries around screen use and bedtimes and little discipline. If the mother tries to impose boundaries when they return from their father’s house, she runs the risk of being temporarily unpopular, and she may rather not risk that. She might try to impose boundaries but the children resist and discipline becomes challenging. It may seem easier for her to give up on discipline and let children do as they like.
“I thought I had to relax my rules for the kids because their dad didn’t have any. I didn’t want to be the strict unpopular parent when he gave them everything they wanted.”
Mothers may too often put their children’s needs before their own.
Mothers subjected to Domestic Abuse may too often put their children first, and in the process neglect their own needs. As with failing to impose boundaries and over-indulging, putting children ahead of your own needs isn’t helpful to them.
Mothers will often self-sacrifice, imagining it’s a positive thing and proudly say that they always put their children first. This can create an authority imbalance and cause children to be confused as to who is in charge.
Mothers need to show children that they themselves matter too if they’re to command the respect necessary to impose discipline.
Being a slave to your children, however tempting, is never helpful. When mothers always put their children’s needs first, this can encourage unhelpful stereotypes that help perpetuate the belief that women should stay at home. In these conditions, Domestic Abuse will thrive. Children should be a priority, but not a priority above the mothers’ own needs. Children can be shown love, care and have their needs responded to without their mother sacrificing her own needs in the process.
“My life was my children, I’d sacrifice anything for them. I thought I was doing the right thing by always putting them first. I didn’t have a life of my own really”.
Mothers can emotionally burden children without meaning to do so.
When Domestic Abuse has caused mothers to feel isolated, unloved and alone, they may turn to their children to fill an emotional void, and this can emotionally burden children and give them feelings of responsibility that may not be appropriate. Communicating to children that they are your life, that you miss them when they’re away, that they encompass all of your hopes and expectations will worry them. This worry may be more intense for only children.
Mothers who feel that their own lives have not gone as planned, may gain some satisfaction from ‘living their lives through their children’. This isn’t appropriate. It’s ideal for mothers to have their own hopes, expectations and goals and to have plans independent of their children. But if their plans have been derailed and their goals abandoned due to domestic abuse, it’s best to resist looking to children to fill the emptiness left.
“When I look back, I know I depended on my children too much. I felt as if my life was damaged beyond repair, but I had hopes and dreams for them and this kept me going. I now have my life back on track having left the relationship and my unhealthy neediness of the children has gone. We all feel better for it.”
Strategies to deal with undermining of parenting
A lack of boundaries causes children to feel insecure and sometimes unloved. Imposing boundaries can be a loving process, mothers impose them because they benefit their child’s health and emotional development. Children will feel better when they’ve eaten well, had enough sleep and completed their homework. Boundaries demonstrate to children that their mother cares. Children will push boundaries to check that they’re in place.
At an extreme, children with no boundaries might be on the streets late at night and taking drugs, or engaging in relationships with dangerous men. So while the absence of boundaries might lead to temporary popularity for that parent, failing to impose boundaries long term will be damaging to children.
Imposing boundaries, not over-indulging, demonstrating that your needs matter too, role modelling empowerment while feeding children healthy food won’t always be easy or possible, especially if the father is still abusing. However small adjustments can have huge benefits to children and mothers too.
Mothers who have been domestically abused will often self-blame when their children have been negatively affected by the abuse. It is important for mothers to remember that they did not cause the damage, their partner did. Mothers may blame themselves for leaving an abusive relationship and breaking up the family while depriving their children of a father, but it is likely that in leaving they were protecting their children in the best way possible.
Mothers will also blame themselves for not leaving the relationship earlier and they may feel responsible for the abuse their children have witnessed. Again, the blame for the abuse lies with the perpetrator and they will have left when they felt able to.
If it’s possible, enlisting support from the wider family can be of huge benefit to mothers and their children.
If the father is now absent, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends can all play supporting roles in providing children with stability and reassurance, whilst taking the burden of full responsibility from the mother.
Seeking professional help can provide much needed additional support for both mothers and their children.
Domestic Abuse charities, like BWP, will provide support for mothers and some will support children too, or signpost them to other organisations who can help. They will also make child safeguarding referrals if this is necessary.
It’s important to remember that mothering can be challenging and difficult at the best of times. No one gets it right all the time. But children will know when they’re loved, and having one good, caring, responsive and loving mother will mitigate much of the damage caused by an abusive relationship.
“Their childhood wasn’t easy, I tried to protect them but they heard the shouting. I didn’t think I’d ever cope on my own but I’m a much better mother having left. I’ve regained my confidence; I have my life back and the children are thriving. They wanted me to be happy too.”
This blog was written by our Domestic Abuse Outreach Worker Sandra.
If you have found this blog useful, and would like to support BWP in our work supporting victims of Domestic Abuse, you can donate to us today through our Just Giving page. You can also comment or share this blog on social pages – tagging us in. www.twitter.com/broxtowewomen or Facebook.
You may also want to read these further blogs from Sandra.
- When he uses the child to abuse you.
- Stalking, harassment, electronic monitoring and Domestic Abuse – and how to stay safe.
- Incels – Misogyny at its Worst.
- Sexual Abuse in Intimate Relationships.
- From historic patriarchy to toxic shame. Why do men become domestic abusers?
- Abusive Persuasion – guilt tripping, persuasive and manipulative tactics seen in Domestic Abuse.
- It’s not your fault. Self-blame and domestic abuse.
- Trauma bonding – why you can’t stop loving the narcissist.
- Is narcissism making you suffer? Discover the key signs of this manipulative abuse.
- It’s not your fault. Self blame and Domestic Abuse.
- How to improve your self-esteem after abuse
If you have been abused by a narcissist, or you feel awful in your relationship but not certain it’s abusive, it might be that you could do with help to understand what has happened to you.
Narcissistic abuse is more difficult to untangle than a black eye, and the damage it causes can be long-lasting. At Broxtowe Women’s Project, our Outreach Team are highly experienced in supporting women who have suffered at the hands of a narcissist. If any of this sounds familiar to you and you think you would benefit from help, please don’t hesitate to give us a call on 01773 719111 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Even when separated and experiencing post-separation abuse, women are very often still concerned about what their abuser thinks of them.
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