Why mothers in abusive relationships struggle to parent
Mothers trapped in abusive relationships struggle to parent effectively, as their partner tries to control and undermine their bond with their children, new research shows.
One third of parents experience domestic violence, according to a report from Australia's National Research Organisation for Women's Safety due to be released on Monday.
"Mothering is more emotionally and physically challenging" for women in domestic violence situations, according to the research review conducted by La Trobe University and the Australian Institute of Family Studies. Data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children suggests that 1.9 million children are affected by parental conflict in their early to middle years.
Abusive men will attempt to undermine their partner's capacity to parent and deprive them of a relationship with their children. Children are often used as pawns in domestic violence situations, and fathers will try to change their view of their mother.
"Motherhood and women's relationship with their children can be an immensely satisfying experience, one that violent and often jealous men may want to disrupt in order to further control her," report co-author Leesa Hooker from La Trobe University said.
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Researchers found that women in abusive relationships can sometimes be unavailable to parent effectively, because of the injuries they are suffering. They are much more likely to develop anxiety and depression, and coupled with self-medicating substance abuse, this can prevent them from attending properly to their children's needs and care. In this context some abused women get labelled "bad mothers".
But Hooker stressed that any negative effect on children's development was the abusive parent's fault. "We should be mindful not to blame women for being victims of abuse and having difficulties with parenting," she said.
Abusive men will use their children to monitor and harass the mother, and threaten to take the children away.
They will insist their needs come first, to the detriment of children. Some women will try to appease their partners first, so they can then tend to their child in peace and quiet.
However researchers warned shielding children from harm could come at the expense of mothers developing a secure attachment with their offspring.
Some children can grow up thinking their mother is harsh and punitive because she will jump in first to discipline them, not realising she is trying to protect them from further harm from their father. Men will assault their partner if they think she didn't adequately discipline their kids, or intervened in a punishment they were meting out.
Children may also not realise their father is stopping their mother from comforting them when they are upset, because he perceives this as a criticism of his actions.
Abusive partners can also control a woman's access to money and social networks, limiting her ability to provide for her children and enable them to form friendships.
Children who grow up in violent households are at greater risk of behavioural, mental and physical health problems. However, they are less vulnerable if they have a strong relationship with their mother.
The research shows pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to domestic violence, because abusive men may feel the new baby threatens the bond he has with his partner, making him jealous and violent.
Pregnant women in this situation can find it difficult to prepare to protect and provide for a new baby. One study found three quarters of pregnant women in abusive relationships felt their mothering skills had been negatively affected.
Violence often escalates when victims try to leave an abusive relationship. Even after the couple splits up, the abuse does not always stop. Emotional abuse is common, and partners often use litigation to torment their ex-partner. In extreme cases fathers will kill their children to extract revenge. It is rare for mothers to do this.
"Retaliatory paternal filicide could be seen as the ultimate form of control, depriving women of a mothering relationship with their child and ensuring lifelong suffering," the report states.