Mothering in domestic violence: protecting children behind closed doors

  Last updated July 6, 2020 at 3:11 pm

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New research is shedding light on the ways that women think and act to protect children from domestic violence, often at the expense of their own safety.


domestic violence_domestic abuse_children

Credit: wera Rodsawang/Getty images




Why This Matters: There is no evidence that abused women are worse mothers.




At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, 90 countries were in lockdown, and around four billion people were at home. The lockdowns were seen as a protective measure, but emerging data found an alarming rise in the rate of domestic violence during the pandemic.


Now researchers are urging practitioners to look beyond clinical observations and focus on the strengths that mothers exercise to protect their children from domestic abuse.


The call follows research from the University of South Australia that upends the perception that abused women are unable to adequately protect their children.


Instead the research reveals the ways that women think and act to shield their children from abuse, often at the expense of their own personal safety.


In the past 12 months, more than 243 million women and girls (aged 15-49) across the globe, were subjected to sexual or physical violence by an intimate partner.


In Australia, one in six (or 1.6 million women) have experienced physical or sexual violence with 80 per cent experiencing coercive control by a current or previous partner since the age of 15. More than a quarter of the women said that children in their care had witnessed this violence and abuse.


It can also lead to worse – on average one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner.


Women protect their children in unseen ways


Lead researcher and experienced social worker, UniSA’s Dr Fiona Buchanan, says practitioners need to recognise mothers’ protective behaviour if they are to work towards increasing safety for women and children living in abusive environments.


“Far too often, women are perceived as passive victims of domestic abuse, who while enduring unconscionable abuse, are unable to protect their own children,” Buchanan says.




Also: Disturbing Australian attitudes towards violence against women uncovered




“But what many practitioners don’t realise is that these women are protecting their children in many unseen ways, that hope to reduce the likelihood of an abusive partner lashing out.


“The mothers in our research talked about the things they did to avoid conflict with their partners, things like controlling the home environment – making sure dinner was ready and on the table; ensuring the children were clean and quiet; and by making sure the house was neat and tidy.


“By trying to pre-empt abuse, they sought to limit their partner’s aggressive outbursts, effectively managing his mood and behaviour to safeguard their children’s wellbeing.”


Mothers increase risk to themselves to reduce risk to children


The study also showed that mothers intentionally tried to ‘keep the peace’ by purposely avoiding conflict with aggressive partners.


“Protective behaviours could span anything from keeping the children out of harm’s way when they thought an assault was likely to occur, to putting themselves physically close to their abuser to try and placate him,” Buchanan says.


“In this instance, despite wanting to put distance between them and their violent partner, they placed themselves closer to the danger, arguably increasing risk to themselves in order to reduce the risk to the children.”




Also: How to be a real Male Champion of Change




Using interviews and focus groups Buchanan and Professor Nicole Moulding, also from UniSA explored the lived experiences of 16 women who had mothered children in domestic abuse, hoping to better understand their thoughts, feelings and actions during that time. Each of the women had left their abusive partner at least one year prior to participating in the study.


Clinical observations downplay the protective role of mothers


Buchanan warns that practitioners who rely on attachment theory (the observed emotional bonds between children and caregivers) in child protection practice are at risk of overlooking invisible acts of protective agency.


“Despite the popularity of attachment theory in child protection, it does not offer much guidance about supporting women and children living in abusive home environments, especially as it categorises the child-mother relationship without context,” Buchanan says.


“Clinical observation downplays the protective role of mothers in abusive relationships and promotes a notion of ‘bad mothering’.


“There is no evidence to assume that abused women are worse mothers.


“Instead of identifying deficits and assigning blame, practitioners should seek to understand the invisible behaviours that women engage in behind closed doors to protect their children from abuse.


“A strengths-based approach is essential if we are to move towards more positive and empowered practices of safety and protection.


“Sadly, we cannot remove women and children from these terrible scenarios without taking a good look at the society which tolerates domestic abuse and blames women for being victimised.”


If you or someone you know is impacted by domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au


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About the Author

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The University of South Australia is Australia’s University of Enterprise. Our culture of innovation is anchored around global and national links to academic, research and industry partners. Our graduates are the new urban professionals, global citizens at ease with the world and ready to create and respond to change. Our research is inventive and adventurous and we create new knowledge that is central to global economic and social prosperity.


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