Like father, like son: how the damage from emotional abuse gets passed down

Children learn from their parents, and this includes abusive behaviour from their fathers.

Children learn from their parents, and this includes abusive behaviour from their fathers. Photo: Stocksy

"Shut the f**k up," screams the three-year-old.

"No. You shut the f**k up," screams his six-year-old sibling in reply.

The mother turns to me and, with a brittle laugh, says, "I keep asking my husband not to say that in front of the kids."

Within my immediate social circle there are husbands who explode with rage when the house isn't spotless and their clothes are not washed and ironed.

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There's a husband who tells his wife that her post-baby body is too revolting to have sex with, and there are several men who won't allow their wives to talk on the phone when they're home.

One man controls his wife's spending to such an extent she can't even buy her friend a birthday card. Another taught his son to apologise to his mother by saying that she is "young, skinny and beautiful", thereby sending the message that these are the most important characteristics in a woman.

And there's one who controls his wife by refusing to look after his own children when his wife upsets him.

I could go on. This is the common parlance of mother's networks, both online and face-to-face. Women strategise and swap books like Why Does He Do That?: Inside the minds of angry and controlling men and sometimes their husband's behaviour is so normalised they don't even recognise it as abuse.

And every single one of these men would see themselves as a "nice guy". They would be outraged at the very suggestion that they are anything but decent and loving family men.

They'd never recognise themselves in images of controlling or manipulative men, much less discussions about domestic abuse. Since they've never hit a woman, domestic violence is something that other men do.

But the reality is more complex. Not all abuse is physical or leaves bruises. Verbal abuse, belittling, and financial and emotional control can be just as damaging.

Many men seem to be either unaware or unconcerned that treating the mother of their children with contempt and disrespect may set an example for their sons about how to treat girls and women.

Nor do they seem to consider that how they treat their wife may become a template for how their daughters will expect to be treated by their future partners.

Boys learn that they have a free pass to abuse women because "Boys will be boys" — something that was illustrated perfectly last week at Brighton Grammar.

And girls learn that they should ignore, laugh at, or that they are even responsible for boys' power-driven and abusive behaviour towards them. We tell girls that "It takes two to tango" or "He probably did it because he likes you."

A new program is attempting to tackle this inter-generational cycle of abuse of women. The Council of Australian Governments has launched a campaign called Violence Against Women: Let's Stop It At The Start, based on research showing that violence towards women begins with disrespect.

The associated website contains guides, checklists, and conversation starters to tackle the excuses we use to defend poor male behaviour and to help parents discuss respectful behaviour with their children.

Campaign ambassador and parenting expert Michael Grose says that these parenting guides are useful for fathers.

"Most fathers have good intentions but their actions and language isn't always great….One of the ways to get to men is to tell them how to do it. You've got to give them the tools," says Grose.

This is all fine in theory, but in practice, I wonder how many dads will actually take the time to seek out the tools, read them, reflect on their own behaviour and values, and have a conversation with their children.

Most fathers in my circle of friends don't read parenting books or look at parenting websites. By contrast the mothers I know have whole bookshelves of well-thumbed books on parenting and belong to any number of online groups.

Grose agrees that very often when people say "parent" they actually mean "mother".

"When I wrote my first parenting book, my editor said, 'I'll give you some advice, put a picture of a mother on your desk and that's who you're writing for'. I was writing a parenting book and I was told I was writing for mothers," Grose says.

While the generational approach of the Let's Stop It At The Start campaign is commendable, it runs the risk of another example of women being expected to prevent and manage the bad behaviour of men — which, ironically is one of core beliefs that fuels domestic abuse in the first place.

The most effective way to teach boys to respect girls is role modelling from the men in their lives. Mothers can wallpaper their houses with checklists and conversation starters, but unless men are prepared to reflect on their own values and behaviour, and call out sexist behaviour when they see it, we are unlikely to see any real change.

Kasey Edwards is a writer and best-selling author.