Children commonly suffer emotional abuse by fathers intent on continuing to exert power and control over their former partner. Possessive men will use children in an attempt to persuade their mother back into the relationship. Jealous men who wish to monitor their former partner might use their children as spies. Men intent on revenge may actively turn children against their mothers in order to punish her. Most insidiously, some men will emotionally abuse their children for the sole purpose of upsetting their mother.
These fathers appear to have little regard for the damage they cause to their own children. They will generally purport to love their children and may give all the appearances of being a good father to anyone looking in. They often make big displays of being the doting father when there’s an audience. Manipulating the opinion of others is something abusive men are often skilled at. The children too may be taken in by them, unaware that their father is the reason for their unhappiness and confusion. The survivor may also be conflicted and confused by what is happening. She may feel some blame for leaving the relationship and being unable to defend her children against the abuses of their father. And she too will often claim he is a good father despite his abuse of her and their children.
If mothers hope that professionals might positively intervene, they are likely to be disappointed. The fathers involved are often charming manipulators who may claim to be concerned about their former partner’s mental health and the safety of the children in her care. They may also suggest that the mother is motivated by parental alienation – alleging she is wilfully alienating the children against him. Coercive control can be very subtle and confusing so proving what the father is doing can be challenging. Children will feel conflicted, confused, scared and will often side with their father against their mother. They may feel safer taking his side, but they may also have been successfully manipulated to feel hostile towards their mother. Getting a straight account from the children as to how their father is emotionally manipulating them can prove very difficult.
Emotionally abusing the children in an effort to entice her back
Using children to manipulate their mother back into the relationship will emotionally burden them whether his efforts succeed or fail. Using children in this way can be an effective strategy to entice her back – women may see the damage their children are being exposed to and return to protect them. Whether or not his tactics are successful, she is certain to feel tormented by his efforts and worried for her children – her distress may satisfy him too. With protestations of undying love one moment and death threats the next, children can become very disturbed by their father’s tactics. Younger children are less likely to understand their father’s manipulative behaviour and may prove very useful in exerting pressure on their mother to return to the relationship. Older children may understand his manipulation but can still feel very sorry for him, and because of this may exert pressure on their mother to return.
“I feel intense hatred towards Eric. Since our separation he has been doing and saying everything to encourage the children to feel sorry for him. He knows he is upsetting them and doesn’t seem to care. His intention, it seems, is to use them to persuade me to rekindle the relationship. This is something I will never do.
“The children are 4 and 6, too young to understand the games he is playing. They are taken in by what he says and plead with me to ‘marry daddy again’. I hear:
Daddy’s sad and lonely and he loves you lots and lots.
Daddy said we can all go on holiday if you come too, please can we go?
Daddy says he cries every night because he misses us and he said it’s good for children to grow up with a mum and a dad.
“The kids are upset, confused and feel responsible for their dad. This is such a burden on them, they shouldn’t need to worry about him. They also feel angry towards me for leaving him and refusing his many demands. I used to tell people he was a good dad despite his abuse of me. Part of me thinks he loves them, but I can’t understand how he can use them as he does.
“I have emailed Eric countless times to spell out to him that I will never have him back, and that he is emotionally abusing our children. He either doesn’t get it or he doesn’t care.
“I can’t tell the kids how daddy used to call me names, control me, financially abuse me, monitor my movements and rape me. How could I ever explain this to them? His emotional abuse of the children has been going on for two years since we separated. I feel worried that he will never stop. I fear for the emotional wellbeing of the children and I don’t know what to do.”
Children encouraged to spy on their mother
Children are sometimes used as spies, encouraged to check up on their mothers and report back to their father. They become the eyes and ears in her home, tasked to collect information for him. This is always inappropriate and burdensome for the child involved. They may feel conflicted, understanding that what they’re being asked to do is wrong but wanting to please their father. Their father may emotionally abuse them further by making judgements about what the children report back to him. He may particularly want to know about who the mother is seeing, where she is going, does she have a new partner, how much has she been drinking. Some men instruct their children to check their mothers’ phone messages and emails. This will clearly burden the child involved and their behaviour can cause both parents to attack them – their mother for spying and their father may be angry If they don’t collect the required information for him.
“I found Harry, my 8 year old son with my phone when I walked into the room. I would have just imagined he was playing candy crush as he sometimes did, if it wasn’t for the look of shock on his face when he saw me. I then realised that he had my messages open. I knew instantly what was happening because it wasn’t the only thing he was doing to monitor me. He’d had a clumsy conversation with me the previous week asking me if I had a boyfriend. I knew he’d been tasked by Simon to ask that question, so I realised it was also Simon expecting Harry to check through my texts.
“I tried to have a gentle conversation with Harry about this but he wouldn’t open up and started to get angry with my questions so I left it. I worry because his behaviour is becoming more challenging but I don’t know what’s going through his mind because he won’t talk to me. I think he’s really conflicted about what his dad is asking him to do, but if I tried to talk to his dad, it wouldn’t end well, it never does.”
Hostile comments to children about their mother to punish her and turn her children against her
Making hostile comments to children about their mother will have various advantages for abusive men. They may get relief by voicing their anger about their former partner; they may want their poisonous comments to be passed on to her to hurt her; they may know that their behaviour will upset the children which in turn is likely to upset her; and their efforts might turn the children against their mother, alienating them from her.
Very often, women I support tell me their children have made the following sorts of comments:
“Mummy you’re lazy because you can’t be bothered to work.”
“Why did you take all of daddy’s money?”
“Dad did everything for you but you but you always wanted more.”
Many of these accusations are centred around accusing the mother of being selfish, lazy or greedy. Accusations such as these can be particularly hurtful for women when they feel they have self-sacrificed in their relationship and are now self-sacrificing for the sake of their children. These accusations also call into question the qualities that are generally considered essential for being a good mother, and any questioning of their mothering abilities will hurt.
Younger children, with their naivety will be more likely to unquestioningly believe what their abusive father says. When they love their mother and believe she is kind, their father’s words will cause them conflict and confusion and this can be damaging to them. Older children can also be persuaded to believe what a vindictive father is telling them. This behaviour can cause very difficult family dynamics where, not only is the survivor being attacked by her abusive former partner, but she is often being questioned and attacked by her own children too. Sometimes the abusive father’s whole focus is on alienating the children against their mother, behaviour that is cruel and damaging to all involved.
Children emotionally abused in order to upset their mother
Arguably, the most unpleasant and disturbing form of emotional abuse of children is when their father emotionally hurts them with the sole intention of this upsetting their mother. Abusive men will regularly target what their former partner holds most precious, which is why the children are very vulnerable to this form of abuse. It’s more often that children are abused by being ‘caught up in the crossfire’ or used as tools to perpetuate abuse against their mother. But when the abuse is directly targeted at them, it can be very difficult for children and mothers to cope with.
Examples of this are when father’s pointedly favour their children from a new relationship over their older children, this behaviour will be very distressing for the older children. They sometimes belittle, ‘bad mouth’ and criticise their children in a cruel manner that causes emotional pain and a crushing loss of confidence. Withdrawing love and habitually treating their children with hostile contempt will also be distressing and damaging to them. Abusive fathers may also frighten their children with bullying behaviour and angry posturing so that the children feel in permanent anxious fear around him. He may refuse to hear their mother’s name mentioned in front of him, causing the children to censor what they say. Their mother, who is the intended target of this behaviour will not only suffer due to her children’s distress, but will also need to deal with their behaviour that might be difficult and disruptive as a reaction to the abuse perpetrated against them.
“ Mohammed was never a good dad when we were together, he was dismissive and neglectful, he really paid little interest in the kids. Caring for them was my job. When we separated, he suddenly decided to take a keen interest and successfully persuaded the Family Court that he was such a caring and devoted father that he won fifty percent contact.
“Our current situation is hell. He emotionally abuses the children to upset me, I’m pretty certain I’m his intended target. He’s unkind, dismissive, neglectful of their needs and speaks to them in derogatory tones. Both have lost their confidence and self-esteem and this hurts me so badly. I try to give them all I can when they’re with me, but their pain is plain to see and it’s hard.”
What can mothers do?
This area is difficult and complex and each situation unique. Here are some suggestions of what you might consider if you and your children are being subjected to this form of abuse.
- Make a note of instances of abuse directed towards you or your children. You may not know if or when you are likely to need an accurate account of events, but an account given using notes made at the time will be viewed with more credibility.
- Seek professional domestic abuse support for the post-separation abuse you are being subjected to. You need support to deal with this abuse and to be the best mother you can be in such difficult circumstances.
- Tell your children’s school what is happening. They need to be aware and may positively intervene and provide one to one talking support for the child where appropriate. Staff may also make child safeguarding referrals on your behalf if necessary.
- Consider making a child safeguarding referral to the Local Authority yourself if you feel this is necessary. However it tends to be better if these referrals can be made by professionals such as school or a domestic abuse worker as there is less likelihood of you being accused of parental alienation – wilfully alienating the father from his children.
- Consider reporting the abuse to the police if it’s serious. This said, it can be very difficult to prove more subtle, non-physical forms of child abuse so carefully consider this and take advice before doing so.
- Consider applying to Family Court for a Child Arrangements Order. Again, carefully think through what you hope to achieve by this course of action because unless abuse towards the children can be proved or it is established that the father is unfit or a danger towards his children, it would be unlikely a court would deny him access.
- Where possible, access support from your wider family and friends. This type of abuse involving children is damaging to all concerned and support from others will help you and your family to navigate it with the best possible outcomes.
- Listen to your children, validate their feelings, be understanding and patient, show them love and be the best mother that you can be for them. Remember that children’s behaviour can be challenging at the best of times and it’s not realistic for you to be perfect, especially when you’re suffering abuse too, but your children will know when you’re trying your best.
The emotional abuse of children is always worrying and can have a serious impact on normal childhood development. Children have different levels of resilience, some cope better, others are more profoundly affected. Despite this, having one good, reliable and loving parent will negate much of the damage caused. Many children’s childhoods are less than ideal and despite this some still have good outcomes in adult life. It can be challenging being the best mother you can be when subjected to this on-going abuse, so it’s important to look after your own needs too and seek support for yourself too.
Published 15 March 2023