Children as an Abusive Mechanism

forms of abuse

Children as an Abusive Mechanism

kids-as-mechanismAs complicated as domestic violence is on its own, it becomes even more complex when children are involved. Not only can they be affected by the abuse (whether they experience it or witness it), they are sometimes used as an abusive mechanism for the abuse by the perpetrator.

What do we mean by “abusive mechanism”?

Abusive partners exert power and control over their significant others through many different tactics — and unfortunately, using children can become a tactic or an abusive mechanism to gain control.

Many times, abusive partners will threaten their significant others by telling them that if they leave the relationship, they’ll take custody of the children. This threat is a form of emotional abuse that the abusive partner uses to keep the victim in the relationship.

Even if an abusive partner hasn’t threatened to take the child away if they feel like they’re losing control in the relationship they might see the child as an opportunity to regain control. This can often happen in relationships even where the partners aren’t married. If there’s no legal tie between the couple, then the child might be the only link that the abusive partner can use to maintain their control. Today’s Parent understands that leaving an abusive partner may be difficult if a partner has used their children as an abusive mechanism, they give strategies on how to co-parent.

What can you do?

There’s no way to prevent an abusive partner from filing a petition for sole custody of the children in court, as they have legal rights and are entitled to access the court system. That being said, in some cases custody provisions may be added to a protection order, which may allow for a window of time to plan for next steps with custody. If a custody petition is filed by the abusive partner, the other parent may wish to reach out for support to help them.

Victims of abuse who have children with their partners may want to reach out to their local domestic violence programs. These service providers may offer much-needed support, or possibly make connections to legal aid. Some domestic violence programs may have legal advisors who can provide guidance on the steps for accessing the court system regarding custody issues. If you decide to look for an attorney, the local domestic violence program may have recommendations for attorneys who are trained in the dynamics of domestic violence. It also may be useful to use this list of questions from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence as a guide to determine whether an attorney will be able to best represent you in your custody case. Womenslaw.org is another useful resource to find suggestions for working with an attorney, information about custody proceedings in your area, contact information about local courts, and other assistance. Legal Momentum also offers a free legal resource kit to download on domestic violence and custody issues.

If you are dealing with custody issues, it’s important to make sure your children know that you are there to keep them safe. Let them know that what is happening is not their fault and they didn’t cause it. Try to maintain regular activities and schedules as much as possible, and create a safety plan with them that is age appropriate. And most of all, tell them often that you love them and that you support them no matter what.

If your abusive partner has threatened or is attempting to file for sole custody of your children, we’re here to help—24/7/365. Call us at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) | 1-800-787-3224 (TTY) or chat by selecting the Chat Now button right here on our website. Chat en español 12-6 p.m. Hora Central.

Comment section

29 replies
  1. It is called parental alienation. And it’s real. 70% of abusers contesting custody will be awarded custody. That means 70% of abused parents in contested custody battles will lose their child. This is frightening and the courts need to make changes to protect innocent people.

  2. Hi Katie,
    It’s definitely alarming how often abusers ask for custody and are awarded custody. Abusers can be very manipulative and methodical when it comes to the court system. We hope that by educating victims/survivors, they can become more empowered and better prepared.

    If you know of anyone who needs assistance, please give them our number (1-800-799-7233). While we’re not legal advocates or attorneys, we can safety plan and talk to them about their options.

    Take care,
    Hotline Advocate VG

  3. Hello – I have experienced the total annihilation of my relationships with my 3 daughters thru their father. There is way more ugliness to this story than I’ll share. It’s difficult to move on, but I have. Since my children are all grown, I’m free of all the drama. I’m turning this lemon into lemonade, with much determination. Too much trauma leads to PTSD which also put me into an early retirement . I’m dedicated to getting on the other side of PTSD. WHEN are the domestic violence laws going to change to really provide any REAL assistance for us?? I’m so tired of dealing with an ignorant justice system. Alaska takes the cake on this one. America is still in the dark ages when it comes to justice in these situations. Being 2014, it’s a crime. How do we change it??

  4. Dear Sky,
    Thank you for reaching out and sharing what you’ve gone through with our blog community. It sounds like you’ve been through a very rough and overwhelming situation.
    Your frustration and anger at the justice system and domestic violence laws is so understandable, and I do not think you’re alone in your sentiments. Many, many things still need to change; more services need to be readily accessible to everyone.
    Despite all these barriers you’ve faced, it sounds like you are so strong. You’re very brave for sharing these parts of yourself and your experiences. We don’t have all the answers about what is going to change the system and the laws but if you ever need to talk to us about anything you’ve been through, or anything that is going on now, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us.
    We’re completely anonymous and confidential. Our hotline is open 24/7 – 1.800.799.7233. Our chat at thehotline.org is open from 9 AM to 7 PM CST.

    Hotline Advocate KK

  5. Please be aware that women can be also the ones who use the children as an abusive mechanism. All too frequently, women make FALSE accusations of abuse of themselves and/or the children in order to be granted a restraining order against their partner, effectively removing the father from their children’s lives. My fiance’s ex-wife did just that, filing two restraining orders in three years, both with multiple fabricated incidents, that asked the court to stop his contact with their son. Thankfully, they were not granted, in part because my fiance rented a locked GPS ankle bracelet (like the kind placed on parolees) to track his whereabouts so he could PROVE to the court he was not stalking his ex. (And yes, she did make the allegation in court that he had violated the RO by being around her; once he showed the judge the GPS and said he could prove her claim false, the judge didn’t even ask to see the location history.) I have every sympathy for actual victims of abuse, like my fiance, but sometimes claiming abuse is just a tactic to gain control and remove the father from his children.

  6. Lynne,

    Thank you so much for contributing to our blog community. It sounds like this has been such a frustrating situation. It sounds like your fiancee did absolutely everything to prove his innocence and I am so glad he had you there, on his side, with so much support.

    The purpose of this blog post was to shed some light on another way that an abuser can gain power and control. This is not specific to any gender, we know that unfortunately both men and women are in abusive situations. One other thing we know is that an abusive partner is very methodical and manipulative that they can often make it seem that they are the victims in the situation to continue to get this power and control.

    Statistically speaking, the scales are so unbalanced, as we know that women are more often the victims in the relationship. That is not to negate the experience of countless men who are abused by their partners.

    It sounds like you have been such an excellent source of support. Know that your fiancee can also reach out to us if he would like to talk this through. Our hotline, 1800-799-7233, is available 24/7 and is completely anonymous and confidential.


  7. I am one of three children who lived with an abusive father and a well educated and strong mother who never left him. I recall a conversation I had with my mother when I was about 13. She asked me if things were bad enough for her to seek a divorce. She knew the abuse frequently came down the hardest on me and I intentionally became so involved in afterschool activities, reading, and schoolwork that I effectively isolated myself from the family to avoid contact with my father. My mother was concerned about various financial issues and she knew my manipulative father would make the divorce proceedings very difficult. I could see that her guilt in regards to his treatment of me was hurting her the most. At the time, my father had been spending more time away from the house as he was involved in various affairs and it was making living at home more bearable for me. Plus, I told her that I was concerned about him getting joint custody and that we would have to spend weekends alone with him. My youngest brother was nine at the time. I wouldn’t have left him. I found that reality more scary than our current predicament. I told her not to seek the divorce based on my feelings about him. The prospect of being with him without my mother around was not something I wanted. There was no way to win. I don’t know what the right answer is but I wish there were more investigative methods into the children’s needs in divorce and abuse situations to protect the mother and the children.

  8. JLC,
    Thank you so much for sharing and being a part of our blog community. It sounds as though you had to make a very difficult decision when speaking to your mother about the possibility of divorce and I would really like to take the time to commend you on how strong and courageous you are, not only to protect yourself but your younger brother by voicing your concerns. As we see, and as you experienced, the possibility of an abusive partner getting custody can be a very terrifying thought. The court systems are supposed to have things in place to help protect the children and their best interests, unfortunately, sometimes even that can not be as thorough as we would wish it to be. The decisions to leave is far from black and white, especially when there are children involved, and the idea of being away from the protective parent can be frightening for both the parent and children.
    I am glad that the relationship between yourself and the protective parent, your mother, was such that you felt comfortable telling her what your concerns were in seeking a divorce. That must have been a difficult time. Feel comfortable to give us a call at the Hotline at (800) 799-7233 if you would like to seek further support and share our number with your mother and siblings if you feel they may benefit. We are available 24/7 and completely confidential and anonymous.
    Thank you again for sharing and shedding light on such a difficult topic within domestic violence.
    Take care,
    Hotline Advocate RF

  9. Poner a los hijos son medios para alejar al padre que quiere que las cosas salgan bien para sus hijos, cuando una mujer tiene otra pareja este es un medio de como sacarlo, ademas en mi caso me accidente y estuve 4 meses en coma y varios años en tratamientos, le molestaba que yo pidiera ver a mis hijos que era lo único que yo recordaba, hasta pedir que me deportaran por violencia domestica, y la policía de migración tomara esto como un ser indeseable, hasta llegar al punto de lograrlo, a mi me puede hacer lo que quiera, no importa porque se que mis hijos tarde que temprano le pidieron que querían visitarme al país de donde fui deportado. La violencia domestica es un factor que las mujeres utilizan para dañar a cualquier persona, en Estados Unidos, las mujeres lo utilizan para imponer su mando, pero esto debe ser revisado antes de tomar cualquier decisión, primero deben indagar a los hijos que son las personas afectadas, y preguntarles si realmente esta pasando algo grave, llamar al 911, no es la solución hasta que se llegue al punto de la llamada, si el padre esta con sus hijos viendo televisión, y la policía mira esto, cuando ellos llegan, y ve todo tranquilo, porque llegan al punto de arrestarlo y fuera de eso esposarlo, pero ella me coloco violencia domestica y me llama porque la niña estaba enferma, como padre me preocupo que mi hija este en mal estado de salud, así me allá colocado violencia domestica. Las leyes las viola cualquier persona, tómese desde el punto de ser hombre o mujer y aquí no es solamente (violencia domestica, para mujeres). Jueces estudien y tomen las cosas y lleguen a la decisión que es a favor de los intereses de la familia, y familia se llama padre, madre e hijos, no mujeres solas con los hijos………

  10. I totally agree Katie. My ex husband has physically mentally and verbally abused my 2 daughters ages 12 and 14. He is an abuse who was awarded custody by the courts here in Shelby County, Alabama. I have called CPS I have provided proof of the abuse I have provided pictures of my 14 year old cutting herself and he is due to go to court on domestic violence charges in Nov. The judge would not even listen or take any of it in consideration especially the cutting in which she is doing a this home. Instead I was punished by having my child support increased, have to live in the school district to see my kids, and he was awarded for me to pay his attorney fees which has cause a big financial hardship on me and may have to move in with my parents to survive which will in turn decrease my visitation. How is this right? How is it that my children have to suffer by begging to stay with me, cry, get physically ill at the thought of returning to him and the court system just don’t care. I don’t get it. If you can offer me help or assistance in getting my kids back because I have exhausted all efforts, that would be great. I have been left with over 20,000 to pay in attorney fees alone plus child support. Help is so needed. Thank You!!!

  11. Anita,
    Thank you so much for adding to our blog community. What you are going through sounds, not only mentally and emotionally draining, but also financially. We see that abusive partners utilize the court systems to continue to hold power and control over their partners even after they’ve left. It seems as though the custody court has been incredibly financially draining, but that you are trying to do everything you can to keep your daughters safe.
    Far too often the protective parent is found in a similar position to yourself. You’re an incredibly strong woman to face what you have and continue to fight for your daughters, you are the protective parent they deserve. You had mentioned that one of your daughters had started cutting herself. The website http://www.helpguide.org/mental/self_injury.htm may be a helpful tool for her, and for yourself as a support system for her, as it shares information on self harm.
    Although we are not legal advocates on the Hotline, we still may be able to help you look into resources to help with what’s going on. We are available at (800)799-7233, 24 hours a day for your support.
    Take care,
    HotlineAdvocate RF

  12. I have been a victim of this same scenario. Depressing and scary. And, my daughter has been kept from me and brainwashed for 2.5 years now. I need help and don’t know . Where to turn. Thank you.

  13. Hi Danielle,

    Thank you for reaching out to us. Children are often used as pawns by abusive partners. I am sorry to hear that you have been separated from your child and I can imagine how depressing this is for you. Please give us a call so that we can discuss this situation and look for resources to help. The number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline is (800) 799-7233.

    Hotline Advocate MT

  14. I gotta go to work soon, so this will be brief. The man I married bullied and lied and kept the kids. He used the court system to abuse me. I saw the judge more than my five children in the last two years.
    I did everything right. Some predators are ruthless. I would’ve died if I had stayed married. The children have it bad. He is a pedophile and successful business man. When the kids told me that their Dad is taking pics of them nude, I was very angry.
    CPS filed eleven counts against me! The police blamed me. The kid’s school blamed me. Their daycare blamed me. My church austracized me.
    Some predators are difficult to expose. None of my children have spoken a peep about the abuse (daughter told the school counselors once and they did a cover up) since they saw me take the brunt of it and since they have not been able to visit me since I came forward about the abuse.
    It is sad.
    I have tremendous grief, but maybe in 30 years my children will be free. I will be here to teach them about Jesus. If I had stayed married, I’d be dead.
    I hope no one else has gone through this. It is a refining gauntlet!

  15. Lily,

    Thank you for sharing your story. What you’ve been through is awful, and you and your children don’t deserve this. Your situation sounds very serious and complex and may be best served by talking with you directly. You can reach us 24/7 at 1-800-799-7233, or 7am-2am CST online through our chat service at http://www.thehotline.org. We would be happy to talk with you, connect you with any resources you may need, and help you create a safety plan for yourself and your children.

  16. Thanks Hotline Admin,
    It has been a long road. How ever you can help, I would appreciate it. I will call. I am sure that I will be emotional on the phone. I am at work for the next two hours.
    Some abusers are very manipulative. Some abusers are very sparkly. My lawyer basically said that Ex is the alphamale of my old community.
    I have been struggling for justice for the years. I have spent every penny and tried everything. (except the media for the sake and safety of those little ones under his spell). If I get my children back, I have a plan. I am pursuing my Master’s Degree. The terror will not leave my bones until that horrible man is in prison.
    It is an uphill battle. If you have any steam to help, I do believe that eventually Ex’s house of cards will fall… he has built a system on lies and on corruption.
    I am still alive! I believe that he will fall into the pit that he dug for me. It is dark and deep. I believe that my children will be free, and as a mother I really treasure that knowledge.

    ~!God speed, bless and protect.

  17. Lily,

    Thank you once again for sharing your experiences with our online community. Your strength and resourcefulness are an inspiration, and I’m so glad to hear that you plan to reach out to talk to one of our trained advocates via phone. Our advocates are available 24/7 to be a listening ear, to work with you to plan next steps, and to identify local resources that may be able to help you on your journey to peace for you and your children. Again, our 24/7 Hotline number is 1-800-799-7233, and our advocates are also available to chat at http://www.thehotline.org from 7am-2am CST every day.


    Hotline Advocate AC

  18. My wife has hit me twice in the past 4 months while we had a disagreement while driving down the road with my 6 year old daughter in the backseat. The last time my wife scratched up my face and arms pretty good. We almost wrecked because I wanted to record our conversation. I have lied to people and said my dog scratched my face while I played with her. I never hit back because it is wrong. My wife then proceeded to tell my crying daughter in the backseat that daddy does not love her multiple times.

    We dont have a good marriage and there is no love in it for each other. She is married to her family and they all live in the immediate area. My closest family is 500 miles away.

    I am the shy submissive one. She is the type A personality. I can never form the right words to convene my thoughts correctly. I dont have the money for an attorney or to move out. I am at wit’s end and dont know what to do. I really dont have any good friends. I did not contact the police because my wife would lose her job and then it would be difficult on our daughter. Any suggestions will be helpful. I am seeing a therapist at the end of the week.

  19. Hello Mike,

    Thank you for reaching out through our blog community. The behavior that you described is very abusive and nothing that you could do to deserve it. It is really painful for your wife to tell your daughter that you do not love her. I want to let you know about another blog post on our page: Men Can Be Victims of Abuse, Too. There are some links at the bottom of that blog post that may be helpful as well. You deserve to have support and to be able to find a way for you to be safe and in a healthy situation. If you would like to talk to an advocate about your situation, we can help you explore your options and locate local resources. You can talk to an advocate 24/7 by phone at 1-800-799-7233 or through chat everyday from 7am to 2am CST. I encourage you to take the steps you need to be safe.

    Take care,

    Hotline Advocate LC

  20. I live every day just to survive. WHY DOES THE COURSE SYSTEM NOT protect our children better???!?!!

  21. I would have LEFT YES ago. Ending the damage being done to my children. (And myself) It keeps me up at night, worried sick how and if we all we ever recover. But, what’s happening when I am here……imagine when I’m not. 🙁 🙁 🙁

  22. To whom ever you are…….this is my life in a nut shell. I admire you and your Mother. It is profound to live, no survive threw this. I worry more then anyone will ever realize what’d happen if I’m not here to help and protect my daughter. I can say without a doubt….UR Mother loved/loves you beyond measure. And given the chance would live it all again, just to be sure at the very least that she is with you.
    My heart and prayers go out to you.
    Stay positive and Brave!!!!

  23. Amanda,

    Thank you so much for reaching out, and I’m so sorry to hear what you’re going through. You’re such a strong person and you’re doing so much for your children, but you and your children all deserve to be able to live a safe and happy life! It sounds like a complex situation and one that may best be addressed by talking with you directly, so if you’d like to, you can reach us 24/7 at 1-800-799-7233, or 7am-2am CST through online chat at http://www.thehotline.org. Support is really important when you’re going through something like this, and we would be happy to help you and connect you with any resources you’re needing right now. We hope to hear from you!

    Take care and stay safe,
    Advocate MT

  24. Its similar here in the UK! Male partners/husbands get ignored as victims by the system. My ex wife has belittled me in front of the children. She had the affairs and destroyed the marriage in a terrible way, ran me deep into debt and considers I’m to blame for what she has done. She has lied to everyone and poisoned my children, now adults, against me. She uses,the “I’m proud of my children” line as if I had no part in their achievements.

  25. Hi Tom,

    Thank you for reaching out on our blog community. It is never ok for anyone to treat you with any form of abuse or to use your children against you. Gender identity is never something that protects someone from abuse and men can be victims of abuse. Our Chat and Phone hotline are not available to those outside of the United States of America at this time however I encourage you to reach out to your local UK domestic abuse resources if you are needing support. Take care

    Hotline Advocate LC

  26. Hi Amanda!
    It sounds like you have been through a lot. To talk with a hotline advocate about your concerns, reach out to us via online chat or call us at 1-800-799-7233.

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