When a Mother Is the Victim of Abuse, How Does It Affect Her Children?

When a mother is the victim of abuse, this causes her children to suffer and may lead to serious consequences in the present and the future.
When a Mother Is the Victim of Abuse, How Does It Affect Her Children?

Last update: 08 September, 2022

When we talk about gender violence in the home, the approach is often limited to the women who suffer it. However, its consequences extend to all members of the family. In the case of children, the situation is more delicate, as seeing that their mother is the victim of abuse has similar effects because they also live in violence.

When a mother is the victim of abuse: Consequences in children

Being exposed to and witnessing their mother being abused is one of the most stressful and painful situations children can experience. Moreover, this can have physical, behavioral, and psychological consequences.

Some of the most common symptoms in children that we observe in this situation are the following:

  • Difficulties in falling asleep, nightmares, and nocturnal awakenings.
  • Somatic disorders, such as allergies, upset stomach, or headaches.
  • Eating changes, such as loss of appetite.
  • Behavioral regressions, such as loss of bowel and bladder control or sucking on their fingers.
  • Experiencing anxiety or fear when encountering the abuser or any other stranger. Feelings of anger, guilt, or shame may also occur.
  • Difficulties in academic performance. There’s often hyperactivity and loss of concentration.
  • Loss of social skills. They also experience relationship problems, both in the present and in their adult relationships. For example, during childhood, they may experience behavioral problems, such as aggressiveness, impulsivity, confrontations with their peers, or cruelty to animals, among others. Because they’re raised in a hostile and toxic environment, they learn that this is the norm and may end up being both victims of abuse in later relationships and future victimizers.
  • Low self-esteem, due to feelings of helplessness and lack of protection.
  • Criminal behavior or behaviors related to substance abuse.
A young girl who can't fall asleep at night.
Children who witness violence suffered by their mothers often have nightmares or difficulty falling asleep.

Changes in their relationships with their parents

A special section deserves to be dedicated to the way in which violence impacts the relationship that the child has with their parents. Children go through a whirlwind of emotions because they don’t understand what’s going on. This is how, over time, they’re left with the ambivalence of having negative feelings both towards their father for mistreating the mother and towards the mother herself, who was unable to leave the home and prevent her children from growing up in a hostile context.

Sometimes, when a mother is the victim of abuse, her children may not see her in that light, but also as responsible for not having reacted to the situation, which leaves them wrapped up in guilt and interferes in the relationship they have with her.

This is how the bond with both parents is eroded and goes through all these emotional ups and downs that put children’s mental health in check.

Factors that determine the impact of violence

We now know that, when the mother is a victim of abuse, the consequences also reach the children who are witnesses. However, the impact will be attenuated or more complex depending on certain factors. These include the age and developmental level of the child, the length of time the child has been exposed to violence, and the family context. Sometimes, having other family members provide support and accompaniment can be very useful.

Besides the violence itself, the perverse aspect of this vicious circle is that children receive a confusing and ambiguous message: Violence toward someone they love comes from someone they also love. Faced with this situation, children don’t know how to deal with violence. Moreover, if children are between 4 and 5 years old, they often feel guilty and believe that they’re the cause of “those bad things that happen at home”. That’s why early intervention is key.

An angry looking man, with a womana nd young girl cowering in the background.
In most cases, children don’t know how to cope with violence. They may even feel guilty and believe that they’re the cause of the problem.

Not all is said and done

It’s clear that witnessing a mother being abused isn’t an ideal condition for parenting and will certainly leave after-effects. However, this shouldn’t discourage these children, who later become adults, to seek and learn new ways of relating to one another.

It will be very important to work on what little ones believe about violence, as it began to be part of life at an early age. Because parents are our role models and we’re formed in the light of what we see and hear from them, this can lead to the creation of distorted mental models. At the same time, work should also be done on trauma and the consequences of post-traumatic stress.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Bedoya, M. H. & Giraldo, M. L. (2011). Vivir la violencia materna. La voz de los niños y las niñas. Revista Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, Niñez y Juventud, 2 (9), pp. 607 – 617.
  • Barudy J, Dantagnan M. Los buenos tratos a la infancia. Parentalidad, apego y resiliencia. Ed Gedisa, 2005.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.