When Mothers Experience Abuse, Addressing Their Mental Health Is Critical for Children's Well-Being

A new mom cuddling with her child.

Connecting Partner Violence to Poor Functioning for Mothers and Children: Modeling Intergenerational Outcomes” (abstract). Nina Fredland, Lene Symes, Heidi Gilroy, Rene Paulson, Angeles Nava, Judith McFarlane, and Jacquelyn Pennings. Journal of Family Violence, Vol. 30, No. 5 (July 2015).

What it’s about: Fredland and her team surveyed 300 English- and Spanish-speaking mothers who were seeking shelter services or a protection order for the first time in a major metropolitan area. The researchers wanted to see if there were relationships between mothers' experiences of abuse as a child and later as an adult in intimate relationships and their experiences of chronic pain and mental health challenges, their children's witnessing family violence, and the children's behavior. The researchers also wanted to see whether social support, employment, and self-efficacy (the belief in one’s ability to complete tasks and reach goals), would buffer the mothers' experiences with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.

Why read it: Previous research shows that women who are victims of intimate partner violence and their children have more mental health needs than families who were not exposed to violence. Also, mothers’ mental health has a significant effect on children’s mental health. This study addresses a gap in the research: whether a mother’s experiences of abuse in the past and present have an intergenerational effect on her children’s behavior.

Biggest takeaways from the research: Fredland, et al. make the case for prioritizing mothers' mental health in interventions focused on the well-being of children exposed to family violence. The authors found several key associations between mothers’ and children’s well-being and mothers’ histories of abuse and relationship violence. Here are the study’s main findings:

  • Mothers who experienced abuse as a child were also more likely as adults to have experienced intimate partner violence and mental health challenges and to have children who had witnessed violence.
  • Mothers’ chronic pain was linked with depression, anxiety, physical symptoms of distress (such as stomach pain), and PTSD.
  • As mothers' mental health challenges increased, children’s behavioral problems increased.
  • Women who were abused in childhood had experienced more severe violence from their partners compared to women who had not experienced childhood abuse.
  • Women with higher self-efficacy had better mental health.

The authors recommend that service providers intervene as early as possible after intimate partner violence has occurred to address not only children's but also mothers’ mental health challenges and ensure that mothers and children recover their overall functioning and well-being. The researchers mention that the Helping to Overcome PTSD Through Empowerment, or HOPE, program is a cognitive behavioral therapy intervention that's been shown to improve functioning among women seeking safe shelter.

Fredland et al. suggest that while preventative interventions for children are important, starting with the mother may be even more important in limiting the effects of children's exposure to partner violence. In particular, they recommend addressing mothers' chronic pain and poor mental health outcomes brought on by partner violence.

Additional references: Look for more articles about intimate partner violence and children exposed to violence in NCFY’s research library.

Read our NCFY Reports article “Family Violence Encompasses Wide Spectrum of Experiences.”

Learn more about how family violence travels across generations.

Find out the service needs of Native women and children who have been exposed to domestic violence.

What are the best practices for serving parents, children and youth who have been exposed to domestic violence? Read our NCFY Recommends article to find out.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, the Family and Youth Services Bureau, or the Administration for Children and Families.

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