The Challenges of Parenting as a DV Survivor


Let’s face it, parenting, especially in this day and age, is tough for anyone. But it can be especially tough for someone who is a survivor of domestic violence. Dealing with the effects of their own trauma and at the same time learning or re-learning parenting skills presents a unique set of challenges.In our Child and Adolescent Therapy Program, we not only work with children and teens who have witnessed or experienced violence, we also work with parents who are trying to do what’s best for their children in the wake of such abuse. It’s important to help parents feel safe, stable, and supported so they can even begin to talk about these difficult things. We try and meet their most basic needs– shelter, food, clothing, etc, so that they can be better equipped to reestablish healthy relationships with their children. It’s understandable that domestic violence damages the bond between a parent and a child. Whether there’s been a physical separation as custody issues were sorted out, or an emotional separation due to their responses to trauma, there can often be a sort of ambivalence present. It is really important for the continued health of both the caregiver and the child to restore and repair that bond.

In some cases, the child might bear a physical resemblance to an abuser or even be a product of a sexual assault. Either way, it can be challenging for a parent to manage their responses to a child who is a visible reminder of abuse they’ve suffered. In addition, we have seen instances where, for example, a mother perceives her child’s misbehavior as abusive, rather than recognizing it as, say, normal toddler behavior. In this and other cases, the mom had to work on her own emotional regulation, and learn to respond, rather than react, to her toddler’s actions.

Shelter is a very necessary and helpful thing for many survivors of domestic violence. While survivors who come to stay in our shelter are grateful for a roof over their heads and a safe place to stay, parenting in the context of shelter can be complicated. For starters, there are other people around. Constantly. Very few of us would want to live our lives under a microscope, and sometimes that’s what it can feel like to try and parent your kid in a household full of other people who all seem to have an opinion on how you parent. There may be non-parents in the house who get annoyed by the kids and their behavior, or other parents whose differing parenting styles provide a source of conflict.

Shelter residents often have a constant fear that they’re doing something wrong, and a need (whether real or perceived) to explain why they do what they do. To compound that, kids are often aware that their parent is not the ultimate authority in the house, and by their nature, kids test limits. So if Mom says, “no more computer, the computer room is off limits,” but the computer room remains unlocked because other residents need to be able to use it, the kid might go in there anyway, saying, “it’ s not your computer, it belongs to the shelter.” This makes limit-setting hard. If the Department of Children and Families has been involved in their life at any point, they live with the constant fear that someone will call them again and the child will get taken away.

The challenge for us is how to help the survivor see themselves as a parent. They may be used to seeing themselves as victims, or in some other way but only in the context of their relationship to the abuser. It’s hard to redefine yourself as a parent, to see yourself as having control when you are used to being controlled. Asserting that control can be scary for survivors who are sometimes overcome with shame, guilt, and the responsibility they feel for what their child may have seen.

Young mom with baby

Part of this work involves helping survivors tap into their own experience as a child and identifying positive and negative experiences. We ask them, what things do you want to take from your past and transmit to your children? What things do you want to leave behind? This can help them to identify and honor their family as well as cultural values that are often threatened when violence is present.

Another challenge facing survivors who are parenting is the trauma their child may have experienced. Parents have to learn to distinguish what is normal behavior in a child, and what could be a response to abuse that the child has witnessed or experienced. What are normal developmental stages and what is a reactive behavior that might need attention beyond that immediate moment? Through this type of parenting work we can slow the parent down and help them see the child as a person and not a problem.

We often talk about appropriate discipline and different behavior management techniques, such as controlling the environment. Years ago we had a toddler in the shelter who kept climbing up on chairs and then jumping off of things, and a young mother who was extremely frustrated by this behavior, having never been responsible for a toddler before. In her work with our Child Therapist, they discussed the fact that it was appropriate for kids that age to be curious, and that by taking the chairs out of their room, we could reduce the likelihood that the child could climb up and hurt herself, while not punishing her for being curious. They tried it, and this decreased the frequency of the yelling, which made everyone happier. We also introduced the concept of a time out, explaining that it might work not only to discipline the child, but also give the mom a break, a chance to regulate, take some deep breaths, and be able to respond appropriately.

Our Child and Adolescent Therapist explains, “We need to nurture parents, because if they haven’t been nurtured, they’re not going to be able to nurture their kids. They haven’t been heard, they haven’t been valued. So we show up for them, we celebrate their successes. We show that we care about them as a person, not just in the context of their kids.”

For more information on the effects of domestic violence on children,