Helping Mothers Helps Mothers and Children: Familial Power Dynamics in Abusive Households

Monday, 16 July 2018
Distributed Paper
Rachel LOVELL, Case Western Reserve University, USA
Daniel FLANNERY, Case Western Reserve University, USA
This paper is based upon an evaluation of an intervention provided to (primarily) mothers (n=287) who are or have been in an abusive relationship(s). The intervention consisted of three informational sessions detailing how intimate partner violence impacts children’s behavior for the purposes of reducing the risk factors for child abuse and maltreatment. Data collected on the intervention included satisfaction survey with participants, attendance records, and a focus group with session facilitators. The overwhelming majority of participants (~95%) viewed the intervention favorably or very favorably.

Additional findings from this study speak to the hierarchy of power within the family. In households where mothers are the primary targets of abuse, mothers often possess less power than fathers but more power than children. This familial hierarchy of power implies that mothers often are in the middle—possessing both shielding and wielding power. Mothers in this study reported that they attempted to shield their children from seeing and experiencing violence but also reported “lashing out” at their children at times. Some mothers reported feeling significant guilt as a result. Based on participants’ feedback, the intervention proved successful at helping mothers better understand how exposure to trauma impacted their children's behavior, potentially lessening their “wielding” power. Additionally, mothers reported that the sessions helped them better understand how their exposure impacted their own behavior. By the end, many mothers said they felt empowered and more confident, potentially increasing their “shielding” power, and for one woman, lead her to leave the abuser.

This research has important public health implications for reducing familial violence and speaks to the need for interventions to account for power dynamics in the family, mothers’ “shielding” and “wielding” power, and how information provided to mothers on the impact of exposure to trauma can improve the lives of children and mothers in abusive households.