Parenting Practices and Violence, Domestic Violence


Rights for Mothers   Continuing on with the reality…

The existing social science literature on the parenting behaviors of both perpetrators and victims of domestic violence is growing but limited. This entry discusses such literature, the assessment of the impact and the risk of domestic violence on children, and interventions.

Parenting by Perpetrators and Victims

The literature on parenting by perpetrators of domestic violence indicates that they often continue their abuse of the adult victim and make targets of children in their homes. This behavior may negatively affect the development of children in a number of ways. Children may also continue to hold positive views of both parents despite the violence, but they more often assign negative qualities to the perpetrator.

The literature on parenting by adult victims- usually mothers-indicates they are many times under greater stress than other mothers, but that even in this hostile environment, they tend to parent adequately. Battered mothers may, however, be more likely than other mothers to use physical aggression against their children, but they are less likely to do so when they are safe. Adult victims repeatedly indicate that perpetrators interfere with their parenting and that the victims often make decisions to stay with or leave the perpetrator based on their sense of the best interests of their children. These protective strategies are often underestimated or overlooked in custody and visitation recommendations and decisions.

Ironically there are more data available on battered mothers and their caregiving than on the male perpetrators and theirs. This imbalance in the published literature is probably a result of the greater availability of battered mothers to researchers collecting data in social service and shelter systems. At times the over-reliance on data collected from and about battered mothers may lead to partial or inaccurate conclusions. For example, it may be that the perpetrator’s behavior is the key to predicting the emotional health of a child. However, a number of studies measure only battered mothers’ difficulties resulting from perpetrators’ violence and then associate these maternal difficulties with negative child outcomes. By not collecting data about the perpetrators, researchers may incorrectly conclude it is the mothers’ problems and not the perpetrators’ violent behavior that is creating negative outcomes for children. Thus, the results of some studies discussed in the literature may provide only a partial picture of the events that impact the victim’s parenting and a child’s emotional health.
Impact and Risk Assessment

Assessing the impact of violence on children and the parenting behaviors of both perpetrators and victims is a complex process for which few guidelines or protocols currently exist. It is known that the impact on children is likely to vary along a continuum of relevant factors that require thorough assessment when making safe custody and visitation arrangements for the child. Another ingredient is the careful assessment of parents, especially the perpetrator.

A major factor in custody and visitation decision making is to ascertain the level of continued risk a child may face. Risk assessment has been the focus of some areas of the social science literature for decades, but research into risk assessment is virtually nonexistent in the domain of children exposed to domestic violence. Guidelines drawn from extensive practice experience are, however, being published.


Interventions for children exposed to adult domestic violence have existed for over 25 years in shelters and in community-based programs for battered women. It is only recently, however, that these programs have expanded and that other, nonshelter services have become available. Interventions with children exposed to domestic violence are most often provided in the form of individual treatment for trauma, group support and education programs, and child witness to violence programs that work with children and their mothers. Although many programs offer groups for battered mothers and separate groups for their children, other programs may work with individual parent-child dyads. Initial evaluations of these various child-focused programs reveal that children who participated were able to reduce their use of aggressive behaviors, lessen anxious and depressive behaviors, and improve both their mental health and social relationships with peers.

The growing awareness of the impact of adult domestic violence on children has also led to increasing efforts to intervene with parents after domestic violence has occurred. Recently, a number of authors have published descriptions of their work with battered mothers alone or with parent-child dyads. One of the most common approaches is providing a parenting support group that runs concurrently with a children’s program. Others have described direct work with battered mothers through weekly in-home sessions over a number of months following shelter residence. Still another approach is to work with mother-child dyads in providing parenting support. Initial data on parenting group programs, in-home services, and dyadic counseling show positive outcomes for children and their participating parents. These programs have been developed by practitioners with a deep understanding of domestic violence.

The published literature contains few descriptions of programs for perpetrators who are parents. This scarcity is perhaps due to a focus in the field on adult-to-adult violence. Most batterer programs have not included significant content on parenting, but there are several examples of emerging programs specifically designed for training adult assailants to parent without violence. These programs include information and activities focused on (a) a father’s role in the family, (b) defining violence in parenting, (c) using discipline versus punishment, (d) nonviolent means for changing children’s behaviors, (e) information on child development, (f) the effects of child exposure to domestic violence, (g) how to use logical and natural consequences, and (h) communication skills, assertive-ness, and expressing feelings appropriately. However, to date there are few published evaluations of these programs that would help to understand their effectiveness or to refine existing efforts.

In addition, this growing literature reveals little about class or cultural differences in parenting within the context of domestic violence and offers scant guidance on how to respond uniquely to these families.

Supervised visitation programs are also increasingly being used for families in which domestic violence is occurring. Some perpetrators use visitation exchanges as an opportunity to abuse the other parent. The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges has repeatedly recommended that supervised visitation be provided only when safety and security measures are taken and visitation center staff are well trained in the unique dangers posed by domestic violence perpetrators. Suggested security measures include closer supervision of domestic violence-related visitations by trained staff, staggered arrival and departure times and separate entrances for mothers and fathers, escorts to cars, and center access to police protection through direct electronic connections. Although some data on the impact of supervised visitation centers on children and their parents do exist, none focuses on the impact of these programs on families experiencing domestic violence.

Overall, there is a steadily growing interest in the impact of domestic violence on children, and very recently this interest has moved to include a focus on how the parenting of both perpetrators and victims may be better assessed and improved through education and support efforts.

—Jeffrey L. Edleson
Entry Citation:

Edleson, Jeffrey L. “Parenting Practices and Violence, Domestic Violence.” Encyclopedia of Interpersonal Violence. 2008. SAGE Publications. 25 Apr. 2010.

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