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Section 11
Domestic Violence and the Impact on Children

Question 11 | Test | Table of Contents

Children play important roles both directly and indirectly at various points in battered women’s life cycle. For the women in this study, motherhood was an important goal. Arguments about pregnancy and/or disciplining children frequently occasioned violent eruptions; and concern for children was sometimes pivotal in moving a woman toward separation from a violent mate. Children of homeless battered women were forced to remain out of school, and had to adjust to living with strangers in a shelter, or were caught in intergenerational conflicts concerning child rearing when living with grandparents. This chapter focuses on the specific effects violence bad on the children of these women and related issues concerning ‘women’s work’ and child rearing as a single parent.

Analysis of the participants’ values and those of their network members regarding women, marriage, the family, and violence, revealed that most believed in the necessity of occasional physical disciplining of children. In the shelter some of the study participants used, as in most others, there is a policy to urge women to refrain from physically disciplining their children, a policy meant to re­inforce the general philosophy of nonviolence in the solution of any problems. Such a policy, however, may create two complications. First, since most parents believe in the necessity of physical punishment, it can evoke values conflict and give rise to new stress at a time when women are already struggling with other problems. Consequently, the policy is not rigidly enforced but rather, is presented as an alternative form of adult-child interaction which the staff emphasize primarily in the form of modelling. Second, rigid adherence to this policy implies that violence is transmitted intergenerationally, a position which weakens feminists’ political interpretation of violence against women.

Although this research deals only marginally with the question of the intergenerational cycle of violence,’ it does provide insights into the more immediate effects of violence on children. Despite their predominantly traditional values regarding physical discipline, these women were intensely devoted to their children, who were often the focus of their most acute pain and struggle. The effects of the batter­ing on children were evident during the battering phase, the shelter phase, and for months after the women left their violent mates, and included conflicts around discipline, custody issues, and scapegoating of children through the divorce process.

Effects on children during the battering phase
The children were affected both through direct abuse and through observing the abuse of their mother. During the battering phase the women took great pains to protect their children from observing their father’s brutality. Direct abuse of a child was often the occasion of violence toward the mother, particularly if she intervened on a child’s behalf or protested against the father’s harsh discipline of a child. One woman said that the most typical beating occurred when she defended her children. One time, for example, the man’s glasses fell off while playing with their little girl. He blamed the child and kicked her across the room with his booted foot. This incident esca­lated into the final episode and near fatal suicide attempt of the mother. She said: ‘After I took the overdose Maria [the little girl] looked at my face and said “Oh, ma, what happened?” I said “Guess.” She asked: “My father?”

Another woman said she didn’t know how the abuse affected her child: ‘He won’t talk about it except to say “He won’t hit on my mommy”.’ To protect the little boy, this woman had him stay with relatives for a couple of years. Another woman told of her 3-year-old son coming to defend her, saying:

‘No, daddy, no!’ And he came behind his father and started hitting him. And I was afraid his reaction would be to just knock him down or something and Jane [the 2-year-old] she couldn’t even watch it. She would stand there and get hit and just hold on and scream, you know. My daughter is the way she is now from seeing it, when things get too much for her to be around she has her own world to which she can escape. She doesn’t do it so much now, but she still does it….I saw her do it the other day. The10-year-old son of one woman called the police more than once. Often, the women were torn between wanting to protect their chil dren from observing or having any part in the violence and needing to rely on them as the only human source of support available.

The damage these occasions had on the children was quite visible when the women came to the shelter. Of the six women in the shelter with children, two did not bring their children with them. One woman’s child was in the care of a maternal relative because of a cus­tody issue around alleged child abuse. Before this mother finally left her violent husband he had also abused her child. However, when child protective authorities investigated, family members revealed that this woman had accepted the responsibility for the child’s injury and she subsequently lost custody of her child. This is one of the most dramatic examples of the extent to which some battered women will go to excuse a violent mate.

Another woman put her children in the care of foster parents or relatives. The legal custody status took years to work out. The woman’s ex-husband had made some moves to obtain custody. However, he was found in contempt of court for failing to pay child support for several years. Periodically during the research participation, this woman poured out her feelings about the painful decision to put her children in someone else’s care for a year until she could get herself together and provide for them again.

"I need money and an education. I don’t have the energy to face them ... no social worker. God is my advocate. I hate to have the kids get rooted in with the other families. They’re [the foster parents] judgemental do-gooders. They condemn me by their attitudes. It’s just so painful. On Easter, the first alone, I just couldn’t talk to them. Nobody called for my birthday. Robby [her son] said ‘Daddy won’t let me call.’ I called him and told him ‘I still love you.’ I can’t do anything about it. I can’t go through continuous upset for my children. It’s real tense to talk to the kids….Its so painful. It makes me so mad and hurt. I say OK, I’ll make my own life and see what happens. I’ve got the motherhood complex. It’s been in me for 30 years and I’m trying to get rid of it. It’s gonna take a long time getting rid of trying to be perfect. I’m a sick human being trying to take care of four other human beings. I did it all. I went to families and agencies. They helped but not enough... ‘Fill out this paper, come in two weeks.’ The reason I didn’t call the kids is that it tears down everything I’ve built up. The new attitude is ‘Screw you, I’m living.’ But it’s real hard…Motherhood is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with. They’ll understand when they get older, I hope…I don’t know if they’ll have psychological damage that will last for years. I’m just counting on the fact that my actions in the past will tell them that I love them, I’m just counting on that."

Considering the general social condemnation of mothers leaving their children, this mother’s pain and conflict will probably extend through her life. For example, a foster parent called one day threatening to put the children on the street, leaving her again flooded with guilt for placing them in foster care. Her ex-husband tried to pressure her to give his sister custody of the children ‘so she won’t be so lonely’. Periodically, foster parents called to threaten stopping the children calling unless she provided money for them, even though they received public support for the children’s care. Each time this happened the woman felt overwhelmed with guilt about not having her children with her, even though she felt this decision was necessary for personal survival. Periodically she fantasized abandoning them so she would not have to face the constant conflict and guilt associated with their foster placement.

Her ambivalence about her children is understandable since ‘two of my kids were conceived from rape sessions after I was badly beaten’. Whenever an occasion arose such as a child’s birthday or a holiday with traditional family memories, there was a new surge of grief, conflict, and guilt. After missing an appointment for an interview, she said that she was feeling depressed thinking about her son David’s birthday, not knowing what to do and not wanting to do anything, but feeling very guilty and crying:

"I just don’t want to be me ... I don’t know who I am. I do so little for them [the children]. I can’t barely do for me…I don’t even want to talk to them. I just can’t do what I’m supposed to. I stuff the feelings down my throat because of my low opinion of myself."

After talking with her support group she said: ‘I realized I did all I could for my kids with what I had. I asked for help and didn’t get it.’ Clearly, this woman faced a continuous dilemma between what she needed to do for her own survival and what she felt obligated to do for her children.
- Hoff, Lee Ann, Battered Women as Survivors, Routledge: London, 1990

Personal Reflection Exercise #5
The preceding section contained information about battered women’s responses to the effects of violence on their children. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Marshall, A. D., Feinberg, M. E., & Daly, K. A. (2019). Children’s emotional and behavioral reactions to interparental aggression: The role of exposure to within-incident, cross-dyad aggression spillover. Journal of Family Psychology, 33(5), 617–628.

Skinner, L., Gavidia-Payne, S., Brown, S., & Giallo, R. (2019). Mechanisms underlying exposure to partner violence and children’s emotional-behavioral difficulties. Journal of Family Psychology, 33(6), 730–741.

Thomas, K. A., Mederos, F., & Rodriguez, G. (2019). “It shakes you for the rest of your life”: Low-income fathers’ understanding of domestic violence and its impact on children. Psychology of Violence, 9(5), 564–573.

Hoff discovered that the most typical beating of mothers occurred under what circumstances? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

Section 12
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