It is crucial to offer practice approaches that help and support victims of domestic violence in their mothering, those who attended a recent domestic violence workshop heard.
“Protected mothers equal protective mothers. We can help women repair [the damage from domestic violence] by supporting them in achieving emotional and physical safety,” said Kendra Nixon, director of RESOLVE (Research and Education for Solutions to Violence and Abuse) and an associate professor in the faculty of social work at the U of M.
The workshop, called Mothering Through Violence: supporting mothers who have experienced violence and their children, was presented as part of Domestic Violence Awareness Month in November at Sergeant Tommy Prince Place. Co-presenters were Nixon and Angelique Jenney (Wood’s Homes Research Chair in Children’s Mental Health and assistant professor in the faculty of social work at the University of Calgary). About 50 people attended, including those from police services, CFS, women’s shelters, child welfare and other areas.
Nixon cautioned that any discussion on the focus on mothers was not an indication that mothers should be held responsible for the abuse perpetrated against them, nor an indication that fathering is unimportant or should not be examined.
The discussion focused on three areas: the impact on children who are exposed to violence against their mothers, the significance of the mother-child relationship in healing from violence; and looking at ways to support mothers and their relationships with their children.
“This is not about parenting,” Nixon added, saying that mothering refers to a much deeper and more meaningful part of women’s roles and identities and their profound relationships with their children.
Part of the discussion focused on research: that intimate partner violence is more prevalent among partners with children than those without children, and the rates of that violence are highest amongst women who have young children, ages zero to five. (A 2010 study found that approximately one million children in Canada per year are exposed to domestic violence.)
When domestic violence (DV) is perpetrated in a home, said Nixon, much of the research has shown that women actively try to protect their children.
Those who work with victims of domestic violence must remember that women may use non-orthodox ways to protect, such as moving children to a different room or the basement or having code words with children.
Nixon also discussed the ways in which perpetrators can prevent women from mothering, and the ways that can have be detrimental.
“Mothering is something that, in fact, perpetrators can take away, or can fiercely diminish for women, which has a profound impact on them. For some women, being a mother is their central source of identity. It is who they are, so when a perpetrator controls a mother, or takes away the mothering, that has a huge impact.”
Nixon cautioned that sometimes even workers can give mothers the message that they are not good enough. For example, if women are in a relationship that involves domestic violence and are asked to attend a parenting program.
It’s important to look at mothering within the context of many other issues which may be ongoing for the family, said Nixon, including trauma, mental health issues, addiction and poverty. As well, she urged attendees not to group mothers who experience domestic violence in the same category.
“Mothers who are abused are not a monolithic group. They have different experiences of violence, different interactions with children, coping abilities and support.”
She added that Indigenous women who experience DV are not only trying to protect their children from their partners, but also from a society that has historically oppressed Indigenous peoples.
Effects on children
For children exposed to abuse, Jenney again cautioned workers against a one-size-fits-all approach.
“Some children don’t show up as being impacted at all,” she said. “That’s why a proper assessment is important.”
Often, what is noticed is externalizing behaviours, but it’s important to notice the internal issues as well such as depression and emotional competence.
She said studies show the highest number of children who are exposed to violence in Canada are under the age of three.
“These children are particularly at risk developmentally – not just because of brain development but because they are absolutely dependent on their caregiver to manage their environment.”
Children at this age are more likely to be in the same room as their mothers and to be in the home and not in a school environment.
Infants, schoolchildren and adolescents are all affected by violence in the home – from infants who don’t make eye contact because they have learned not to initiate communication with other adults because that initiation doesn’t get a response, to school-aged children who have behavioural and concentration issues at school, to adolescents who exhibit aggression. Jenney said research has shown a direct link between DV and aggressive behaviours in adolescence.
Jenney provided an example of an eight-year-old girl who was being treated for obsessive compulsive issues. She could not go to bed without flicking off and on all the lights in the house. However, she developed the behaviour after her father broke into the home she shared with her mother at night, and when she went to turn on the kitchen light, it burned out and plunged the kitchen into darkness. After the incident, by ensuring that all the lights worked, she was “keeping her mother safe.”
“Imagine – we put her through this intensive program where we were trying to take away this behaviour that was soothing to her. This brings me back to – you must do a proper assessment. Don’t try to remove a behaviour until you truly understand what the purpose of it is,” urged Jenney.
As well, children exposed to violence have more issues of complex trauma – a trauma that occurs when “someone who cares for you is also harming you,” said Jenney.
“When you put all those issues together, you see a cascade of risk, making life more and more difficult for these children.”
Perpetrators need to be held accountable for their actions, said Nixon and Jenney. Often a perpetrator’s behaviour includes turning children against their mother. Studies show that 70 per cent of perpetrators use their children to stay in their partner’s lives. Many also use children to harass and intimidate partners.
“What we also know is harm to children caused by DV increases women’s experience of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and depression in women,” said Jenney.
As a practice principle, Jenney and Nixon said it’s important to clarify the impact, rather than the type or extent of the abuse, as some forms of abuse can be very psychologically damaging with low levels of violence.
“This is my response to: ‘He’s a great dad. He has never hit the kids.’ Well, he has done something to the environment,” said Jenney.
Nixon and Jenney said there are good practice principles to follow when supporting mothers who have experienced violence, and their children. For one, not oversimplifying a complex issue.
That means not seeing women as good or bad mothers who are picking a partner over their child. “It is much more complex than this,” said Nixon.
In fact, mothering can serve as a buffer against violence and its harmful long-term impacts, said Nixon. For many women, because mothering is intrinsic to their identity, it is a source of strength and power, and often what helps them leave the relationship.
Once they leave, the act of mothering can also help them heal and recover after violence, Nixon said.
As a practice principle, mothering can serve as an opportunity for both women and children to cope and to heal, said Nixon and Jenney. A child’s relationship to their mother is the most powerful predictor of a positive outcome for that child. Therefore, a mother’s involvement and interaction is crucial and must be incorporated at all levels of intervention.
In working with mothers, Nixon and Jenney suggest going through their protective abilities, along with reducing vulnerability by intervening early and responding to exposure to violence as quickly as possible. As well, it’s important to provide supports to the child by professionals in the community, including daycares and schools, along with intervening with both parents to support positive interactions with the children.
Other supports include recognizing women not as victims but as those who have power, and providing positive messages to mothers about their important relationship to their child. As well, mothers can look at the ways the DV impacts their mothering. Finally, they suggest helping mothers to identify turning points in their own decision-making that ensured the safety and well-being of their children.
“Mothering can be a powerful source of strength for women. It can inspire women to leave, to seek treatment for addiction issues…it motivates them to get help,” said Nixon.