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Talking with mothers about violence

Talking to mothers and gaining their trust is a pivotal part of working to protect children. Practitioners must let mothers know they are believed, that they can be safe and that they are strong and resilient.

It is always critical to see mothers alone when they are experiencing domestic violence. Do not talk to a mother about violence when the perpetrator is present. Instead, talk about other general topics.

Be careful and creative in finding ways to see her alone at a later point. At times, this will need to be planned with other professionals who work with her or the perpetrator.

The practice considerations and conversation ideas in the following table are not a definitive guide, but they are a starting point. Use these ideas to build your own talking style with mothers.

Printable table:

Practice considerations

Conversation ideas

Make it safe

She can give you valuable insight into his moods, habits and daily activities so you can create an informed strategy about how to approach him in a way that keeps her and the children safe.

 

  • It’s important for you to know that I won’t share information you have told me with [father].
  • I will need to talk to you again. What is the best way for me to contact you? Is there a good day and time of day?
  • I’m interested in what you think the best way is to contact [father].
  • Is there anything worrying you about me meeting with him?
  • [Topic] is what I’m planning to talk to [father] about. Do you think any of this puts you or the children in danger?
  • In what ways do you keep you and the kids safe?

Avoid blame and be open to her perspective

  • Never blame her for the violence.
  • Let her know you believe her.
  • Listen to her experience and explore the history and patterns of the perpetrator’s behaviours.
  • Acknowledge and respond to her safety concerns.
  • Lots of mothers feel like they are to blame. His behaviour is not your fault.
  • I’m interested in you telling me a bit about your life.
  • I’m hearing that you’re very worried that [father] is going to hurt you. How can I be of most use to you?

Explore what she sees as risks

  • Acknowledge that she is best placed to know what will keep her safe or escalate the risk.
  • Explore the different risks and their causes.
  • Get her opinion on how culture, age, socioeconomic status, discrimination and the system (for example, child protection, health, or family law) create risks.
  • Ask her what she sees as the biggest risks to her and her children, and what she perceives as causing those risks.
  • I would like to understand more about what worries you and what you think can keep [child] safe.
  • When do you feel the most and least safe? Why?
  • When do you think [child] feels most and least safe?
  • What are you most worried about?
  • What do you think is the biggest risk to [child's] safety? Why do you think this is the case?

Explore her relationship with her child

  • Understand how he may undermine her relationship with her children.
  • Help to strengthen the bonds between her and her child to promote healing.
  • Bring her and her children together to talk about their experiences. This should only be done when safety has been established for both the mother and child.
  • Help her and her children see how they each cope and manage the violence and abuse.
  • Help her and her children to see and appreciate each other and the support they can offer one another.
  • What do you think [father] thinks about your relationship with [child]? Why might he think that?
  • Can you tell me about any times that you felt that [father] has hurt your relationship with [child]? What did you do?
  • I’m interested to hear about whether you have not been able to parent in the way you would like to. Why do you think that is? What do you do?
  • How would you hope [child] would talk about their relationship with you? Tell me more about that.
  • If I asked your best friend what kind of mum you are, what would they tell me?

Use language that shows there is a pattern of abuse, not isolated incidents

Explore the range of tactics he uses to harm, control and abuse her and her children. These can include:

  • denying her access to finances
  • isolating her from sources of support
  • denying her access to material possessions (such as taking the car, so that she can’t take the children to school or appointments)
  • denying her medication or health treatment.
  • You mentioned that [father] gives you an allowance. What do you do when he gives this to you? How do you feel? What do you think?
  • Can you tell me how you decide on parenting rules in the home?
  • Tell me more about how [father] gets pissed off when you talk to your mum.
  • I’m interested in hearing about times that [father] has made you feel scared. What does he do? What do you do?
  • How does his controlling behaviour get in the way of you being the mum you want to be?

Identify and show respect for her everyday efforts

  • Identify the acts of protection she makes to keep her and her children safe—these may be big or small.
  • Ask her about what she does to keep her and her children safe.
  • Acknowledge the steps she has already taken to keep herself and the children safe.
  • Is this the first time you have had to stand up for yourself in this way?
  • In what other ways were you taking care of yourself and your children?
  • When [father] tells you he hates your mum and you’re not to see her, what do you do? What do you think?
  • So when [father] is pissed off and you run out the front because the kids are inside, you have helped protect them.
  • When you have told the kids they aren’t allowed to watch TV but [father] says not to listen to you, what do you do? So you find another way to discipline them instead. That’s pretty flexible!
  • What other things have you done to make sure things aren’t worse than they are?

Understand her choices

  • If she stays in or returns to a violent relationship, explore with her the reasons why.
  • Remember that many women who want to leave make several attempts to do so before they leave for good.
  • Don't judge her choice.
  • Ask her what support she thinks she needs.
  • I’m hoping you can tell me more about what makes you want to stay with [father].
  • Have there been times you have thought you may want to leave [father]? I’m interested to know more about that.
  • Many women who have been hurt by their partner find it really hard to leave. That’s very normal and I am not going to judge you for your choice to stay.
  • If you are staying with [father], we need to work out how we can keep you and the kids safe. I need to talk to him about his use of violence.

 

Give information in a safe way

Leaving reading material or other information can place her at risk of further harm.

It’s important to:

  • give printed material or written notes directly to her. Do not leave pamphlets or notes around for him to find
  • plan with her where a safe place is to keep them
  • talk to her about online safety. Find out more on the eSafety Women website.

Achieving a life free from abuse is a process

The journey towards a life free from violence and abuse is a process. It is not a one-off event or an incident.

For a mother and her children to be safe, she needs us to help her gain:

  • support from family and friends
  • access to safe, affordable housing
  • access to available, visible, appropriate, affordable and effective services working together to meet her needs and her child's needs.

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