Mothers’ use of physical force against children – context, circumstances and comprehension

Kruse, A. E., & Bergman, S. H. (2014). «Jeg kan jo ikke kalle det noe annet enn vold…»: En forskningsoversikt og en intervjustudie om mødres vold mot barn [Mothers' use of physical force against children - context, circumstances and comprehension] Norwegian only. Nasjonalt kunnskapssenter om vold og traumatisk stress. (Rapport 4/2014).

Violence against children is an issue that generates a great deal of public debate today. In the Nordic countries, legislation and policy development have moved towards zero tolerance with regard to violence against children. Research indicates that corporal punishment or violence in connection with child rearing has declined both in Norway and in the other Nordic countries. Yet many children continue to experience this type of violence either from the father, the mother or both parents.

Nordic prevalence studies show that when children and young people experience so- called ‘less severe’ violence (including restraining or holding, or engaging in pushing, hair pulling, pinching or slapping) from their parents, this kind of violence is at least as likely to be carried out by the mother as by the father. Although we cannot determine the extent to which mothers are committing the violence that children and young people are exposed to, due to different methodological approaches and understandings of violence in the prevalence studies, it is reasonable to expect that mothers are behind a considerable part of at least the ‘less severe’ violence that children and young people experience. However, it is important to consider that in many families, also in the Nordic countries, it is still the mothers who have the main responsibility for raising and caring for the children, and that mothers therefore spend more time with their children than do fathers. Thus the mothers can have more ‘opportunities’ to use violence and physical force against children.

Mothers’ violence against children is an under-researched field in Norway. Those who work with these issues need knowledge to be able to understand the mothers, to help the children, and to work towards ending such violence. We know very little about how the mothers themselves experience, describe and interpret the situations where violence or physical abuse of power occurs, and why it occurs. It is therefore important to bring in the voices of those who resort to violence in order for us to understand this multifaceted phenomenon in a more comprehensive way.

The aim of this project is therefore to expand our knowledge concerning mothers who resort to violence and their illegitimate use of physical force against children. The project is divided into two parts. Firstly, we give an overview of existing research in the field. Secondly, we use a qualitative interview study to shed light on mothers’ use of violence and/or illegitimate use of physical force, that is, situations where they themselves feel that they have ‘crossed a boundary’ in relation to their children.

Part 2 in the report (the research overview) offers a broad outline of Norwegian, Nordic and international research on parental violence against children, and thus also includes research where the focus is not specifically on mothers’ violence. A number of unanswered questions with regards to understanding parents’ violence towards their own children still remain. This is one of the reasons why we wanted to include a relatively broad overview of research in this report.

Research in this field is characterised by a range of different theoretical and methodological approaches and understandings of the violence that children are exposed to. Much of the research comes from the English-speaking world, particularly the US, and cannot necessarily always be transferred to a Nordic and Norwegian context. The studies we refer to emphasise that the reasons for parents’ use of violence against their children are complex, and the findings are partly contradictory.  Correlations have been found between different circumstances linking parents, families and social contexts, and the occurrence of parents’ violence towards their own children. According to much of the research, parents’ experiences of violence during their own childhood, and parents’ use of violence against each other, are factors that increase the risk that children in the family may also be exposed to violence. Several studies also point to different types of social factors, for example marginalisation, low socio-economic status, substance and alcohol abuse, or belonging to an ethnic minority group, that can be associated with the increased risk of exposure to violence. More recent Nordic studies indicate, however, that the strength of the relationship between traditional socio-economic factors and the risk of exposure to violence may be somewhat diminishing – at least when it comes to ‘less severe’ violence. Psycho-social factors, such as conflicts and problematic relations within a family, may on the other hand be more important than it was earlier assumed. Obviously there is a need for more empirical research in this field.

The interview study (Part 3 in the report) focuses on the mothers’ experiences of violent situations, and how they understand and contextualise these situations. We also analyse the mothers’ own explanations for and interpretations of the use of violence. A qualitative approach was chosen in order to focus explicitly on the situational context of the violence and the mothers’ own experiences of the illegitimate use of physical force. This approach allows for a more detailed exploration of the mothers’ descriptions, understandings, and interpretations of situations in which violence is used.

The study is based on qualitative in-depth interviews with seven mothers. These mothers have been recruited through family and welfare services or treatment programmes for people with violence and aggression problems. All of the interviewed mothers have admitted to a certain degree of illegitimate use of physical force against their own children. It is important to remember that the sample is not necessarily representative for all mothers who are violent. Thus, our findings cannot be generalised and applied to all of the ‘violent mothers’ in Norway. Our study can be characterised as explorative – since we study a phenomenon where little research is published. Focusing on these seven mothers’ experiences can provide us with a detailed and complementary picture of the phenomenon of mothers’ violence against children, and our results may also be used as a starting point for future research in the field.

Our main focus in the study is on mothers who have used so-called ‘less severe’ violence and on their experiences of and attitudes towards violence against children. Thus, the interviewed women do not necessarily represent the ‘most severe’ cases dealt with by family and welfare services, or the most severe, most systematic or potentially lethal violence. The lives of most of our interviewees did not appear to be characterised by extreme or very unusual circumstances. However, it is important to note that these mothers cannot be categorised as ‘ordinary mothers’, since they have felt a need to seek out professional help to deal with anger, aggression and violence.

The study gives insight into those violent situations that – according to research – are the most common when it comes to parents’ violence against children in Norway and the Nordic countries. In this summary we particularly wish to shed light on four central findings or major points from the study: The complex image of violence; anger, feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness; shame and guilt; motherhood and power.

The Complex Image of Violence

Violence has marked the lives of the women in our sample in several different ways. The women have both exposed others to different kinds of violence and they have themselves been subjected to acts of violence. The violence that the mothers have committed against their children ranges from what one could characterise as illegitimate use of physical force to severe acts of violence, such as hitting with a fist. Most of the violence that they describe can, however, be placed in the category of ‘less severe violence’. Examples include hitting the head, face or other parts of the body, slapping, pinching, pulling the child by the ears or throwing the child away from them in anger or frustration. The mothers also describe acts of psychological violence, such as threatening, humiliating, screaming at or ignoring the child. This so-called ‘less severe’ violence can have bigger and more serious consequences than one might think, for example when the violence is repeated and becomes more systematic. Several of the mothers we interviewed describe repeated events of different types of violence against the children, alone or in combination with violence and a high conflict level between the parents. Such circumstances make the use of violence more serious.

Several of the women we interviewed have not only used violence against their children, but have also been violent towards their partners or ex-partners. It is interesting to note that several of the women who talk about violence within their family, present themselves as the primary perpetrators and initiators of this violence. Most of our interviewees had also themselves been exposed to different kinds of violence during their own childhood and/or in intimate relationship(s). However, our study does not indicate that these women’s own exposure to violence is the only, or even the most important, explanation for their violence against their own children. It is also important to point out that although exposure to violence can explain increased use of violence in certain groups, being a victim does not exempt anyone from taking responsibility for one’s own use of violence. Additionally, the women themselves clearly gave the impression in the interviews that they wanted to take responsibility for their violent acts.

Anger, Feelings of Inadequacy and Powerlessness

In the interviews the mothers explained what they experienced during difficult situations with their children. According to them, the violence often takes place in situations characterised by stress, feelings of inadequacy, frustration and anger, as well as when mothers feel that they lack confidence and authority or are not shown respect. Some of these experiences can be attributed to the acceptance and incorporation of traditional child rearing values, in which the mothers believe that their children should show that they respect their mothers and their authority. Thus some of the mothers felt that they have a certain ‘right’ to exert their will as a parent, and their use of violence can be interpreted as expressions of this belief. Several of the women we interviewed referred to intense experiences of anger connected to the violent episodes, which for the most part also meant that they had a general problem with anger and aggression. Anger was often experienced as something ‘un-controllable’, a feeling the women wanted to ‘get rid of’ or ‘have an outlet for ’, and is consequently an integrated part of how they interpret the violence. However, it is important to note that the tendency to ascribe acts of violence to feelings of un-controllable anger is not unknown in research on violent behaviour. Interpreting violence as something that is triggered by anger can also be a way of denying responsibility.

The violence committed by the mothers we interviewed can partly be understood in the context of stressful life situations, where the mothers feel powerless both in respect to their children and the life situation they are in. These emotions are often associated with the mothers’ experiences of feeling solely responsible for their children. Several of them claim that they do not get enough help and support, either from the father of their child(ren) or from other adults in their social network.

Shame and Guilt

International research points out that the violence that women direct towards their own children is often associated with shame and is experienced as breaking certain norms of mother- or parenthood. All the mothers we interviewed report various degrees of shame and a guilty conscience in the context of their violence. In societies such as the Nordic ones, most people are aware of a normative zero tolerance to violence and corporal punishment towards children, and thus violence against one’s own children is a taboo. The women we interviewed had in general internalised this norm. The mothers acknowledged that the use of violence or illegitimate physical force against children is in conflict with their ideals and images of ‘being a good mother’, which highly increased the mothers’ feelings of shame. 

Motherhood and Power

The violence used by the mothers can be interpreted as expressions of asymmetrical power relations between parents and children. Violence against children becomes an exercise of power, and simultaneously this power consolidates through the children’s fear, their dependency on the mother, and their adaptation to her demands and wishes. Part of the violence can be perceived as instrumental, that is, the purpose of the mother’s violence is to exert her authority and to force the children to do what she wants. At the same time, it is important to maintain a complex understanding of the concept of power with regards to the mothers and their children. The mothers’ narratives indicate that their use of physical violence can be interpreted as efforts to maintain control over the children, but violence can also be a manifestation of their experience of losing control.

Given the privilege that their age and parental authority affords them, mothers as a group possess superior positions of power in relation to their children. It is, however, also important to emphasise that the individual mother herself can stand in a socio- political context where her power and position is inferior in other hierarchies, for example as a result of a lack of gender equality. Such emphasis does not, however, mean that the responsibility of the one who commits violence vanishes.

Ideals for parenthood in the Nordic countries have moved towards a greater degree of equality and more equal power relations between parents and children during the last 30-40 years, and several of the mothers we interviewed explicitly support such ideals. The findings of our interview study show, however, that there may be a great distance between ideals and practices in this field, which indicates that there is not necessarily any one-to-one relation between values and norms, and what de facto is happening. Despite a normative zero tolerance to violence against children in society, this norm does not appear to be absolute. The Norwegian family is not an institution that is free from power hierarchies, negotiations and conflicting interests. This also holds true for the relations between mothers and their children.