Abuse sends out shock waves that touch every aspect of family functioning.” (Bancroft, 2002)

Women who are currently living with an abusive partner or are healing from an abusive relationship may struggle with parenting because abuse undermines parental authority. Abuse is about power and control – and controlling a mother’s rights is not off limits to abusers. In “When Dad Hurts Mom,” domestic violence expert Lundy Bancroft reveals that undermining happens in two ways: 1) there are inherent undermining effects of abuse and 2) there is deliberate undermining by the abuser.

Abuse by nature sends damaging and powerful messages about acceptable attitudes and behaviors. It inherently undermines parental authority by providing a behavioral model that teaches that the victim does not deserve respect. As children observe their abusive father disrespecting their mother and treating her as irrational or incompetent, they absorb these messages and may begin to view her as inferior. Children may follow this example in everyday life by screaming at their mother in the doctor’s office or demanding items in a store as their mother struggles to set limits.

Deliberate undermining of parental authority may be seen when an abusive partner:

  • Overrules a decision the children’s mother has already made; therefore communicating that dad has the real parental power. For example, an abuser may say, “You don’t have to do that, that’s what your mom is for.”
  • Teaches children to openly disrespect their mother and has them join in on verbal abuse. For example, they may instruct children to call their mother offensive names.
  • Portrays their mother as illogical and unstable. For example, they may repeatedly tell children “Your mom is crazy.”
  • Uses threats to prevent a mother from comforting or caring for a child. For example, an abusive partner may punish children when a mother tries to stand up to him regarding parenting.

Reestablishing and maintaining a proper maternal role takes time and is often thwarted by continued contact with an abusive father. Although an abusive father may not be physically present, his influence continues to be present due to the power and control he exerts. Mothers are often embarrassed and ashamed when difficulties in parenting arise in public. Here are some things to keep in mind when you observe a mother struggling:

  • Don’t stare. Offer words of encouragement by saying, “Hang in there.”
  • Don’t judge. Show empathy by saying, “Oh, it looks like you are having a hard time. We’ve all had hard times.”
  • Don’t tell mom what to do. Offer assistance perhaps by saying, “Can I help you with anything?”

Remember that difficulties in parenting are more complex than you might expect.

Written by Jennifer Escobar-Pagan, bilingual counselor at Genesis Women’s Shelter.