When Jane* finally fled her abusive marriage after years of family violence, she thought life would be peaceful.
What she didn’t expect was for her son to turn aggressive.
“My son has a couple of issues with emotions, yelling a bit from seeing his dad carrying on,” Jane said.
“Because if something happened … something minor, his dad would just lose it … just throw things … scream.
“My biggest reason for leaving was I didn’t want my children to think this behaviour was normal.”
Experts say when mothers escape an abusive relationship, they can find it hard to deal with the everyday challenges of parenting.
And with a lot of families living cheek by jowl under lockdown due to COVID-19, starting afresh can be even harder.
Seeing domestic violence through the child’s eye
The Australian Domestic and Family Violence Clearinghouse 2011 report on the impact of domestic violence on children says children exposed to domestic violence experience emotional, mental and social damage that can affect their developmental growth.
The literature review found children’s responses to their experiences varied, including being fearful, with even minor changes in their daily routines upsetting them terribly, or losing the ability to feel empathy for others.
But the research also found that a child who had lived with violence and trauma was not forever damaged if parents helped their children recover.
For Jane, help came in the form of a parenting program that enabled her to understand the impact of domestic violence on the children.
She says it was crucial to unlearn a lot of the parenting techniques honed by years of trying to avoid the violence.
“When I was with their dad, I was always walking on eggshells,” Jane says.
“Always looking for any signs and trying to defuse the situation right away.
“So what I found difficult after leaving an abusive relationship was letting go of trying to control everything.”
Run by cohealth and targeted at mothers with children of all ages — from toddlers to teenagers — the Parenting after Violence course helps mothers understand domestic violence through the eyes of their children, guiding them to help the children’s and their own recovery.
Cohealth family violence counsellor Tina Guido said children responded to the stress in a number of ways, including hypervigilance due to the unpredictability of family violence and an inability to regulate their emotions.
“They are always on guard,” Ms Guido said.
“But … even when they don’t need to be on guard … they are still in that hypervigilant mode.
“Children [exposed to family violence] will have a meltdown for even mum yelling, ‘Go and have a shower’, because the brain has been so primed to reacting and not being able to, what we call soothing and self-regulate.”
Ms Guido said children also learnt to please and might align with the violent partner to avoid conflict.
“Perpetrators of domestic abuse frequently use strategies to undermine a woman’s authority to parent and have meaningful relationships with their children,” Ms Guido said.