Therapy For Abusive Mothers: What Makes a Difference?

For adults who were physically or verbally abused as children, psychotherapy is an important step in working through the difficult emotions these experiences have created. But what about children currently living with an abusive parent? Providing one-on-one therapy, parenting coaching, and emotional support to abusive mothers drastically improves their parenting skills and treatment of their children, a new Texas study has shown. Many programs like Project Support exist in states around the country, but little research has been done to document how such programs compare to traditional child welfare services. The study, which followed a small group of single mothers in similar financial situations, was published in the Journal of Family Psychology.

Project Support was established in 1996 and was designed to help children in violent families by altering the parents’ behavior. Traditional child welfare services in Texas tend to vary, but include pre-recorded parenting lessons, community parenting classes, individual counseling, family counseling, anger management work, GED classes, and contact with a social worker. Project Support goes a step further. With Project Support, mental health professionals visit a family’s home weekly for as long as six months. Parents are taught 12 specific parenting skills, including how to give positive attention and praise, how to play with and pay attention to their children, how to comfort and listen to their children, how to give appropriate commands or instructions, and how to handle bad behavior. Parents also worked with therapists on how to provide the best environment for their children through limited income and available local and state resources.

The results were highly successful. For families in the control group, receiving conventional child welfare services, 28 percent were again referred to social services for abuse, but for families participating in Project Support, that rate was just 5.9 percent, a 78% reduction. The study’s leaders hope that documenting the success of the program will lead to an increase in similar programs nationwide.

© Copyright 2010 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Jen


    August 1st, 2010 at 9:57 AM

    I am sorry but there are just too many times that I hear abusive parents blame their behavior on what they themselves experienced as a child. It is time to grow up people. You may have had to face some tough stuff when you were growing up- we all did if you want to know the truth of the matter. But you know what? You chose to have kids and it is time to leave all of the crap that you grew up with behind. You know what it takes to be a good parent, and you may not have money but anyone with half a brain can know that a child needs love and not contempt. Enough with the excuses and grow up. I am tired of hearing baout kids who have to suffer because their parents can’t get over it.

  • Adrian


    August 1st, 2010 at 2:51 PM

    Parents learn to be parents primarily from their own, Jen. It’s not crap at all. They have learned a certain way of parenting and that’s what they have to UNLEARN before they can change. Have you ever tried to change something about yourself or your thinking that you don’t like and failed? Found yourself saying something to your own kids that your parents used to say to you, which you swore to yourself you never would? Then you’ll know how hard it is to get rid of lifelong habits and what’s instilled in you in childhood. Growing up has nothing to do with it.

  • estelle


    August 1st, 2010 at 5:12 PM

    Can’t you at least give the mothers credit for wanting to participate in this therapy program? That makes it clear that they are unhappy with their own behavior too and willing to learn how to parent their children that doesn’t involve child abuse of any kind. Go, Texas!

  • Helen


    August 1st, 2010 at 11:05 PM

    It sounds like the home visits are taking the place of what grandmothers used to do by offering instruction and guidance on child rearing. Grandparents and their opinions aren’t valued the way they were when I was growing up. It’s very sad that so much wisdom goes untapped. Not all parents did bad things all of the time.

  • Jen


    August 2nd, 2010 at 4:25 AM

    Maybe these are all things that these moms should think about before doing the deed that’s gonna make them moms in the first place! There are enough bad parents out there, and yes I do give them some credit for at least trying to change their ways, but how much undoing is then going to have to turn around and be directed toward the kids who clearly did not deserve this? Don’t they deserve to have responsible parents from the beginning?

  • luke N

    luke N

    August 2nd, 2010 at 5:47 AM

    That toughest part in such circumstances is that the child is not able to reach out for help most often and this leads to the issue not getting any attention.I;m sure there are a lot more of such issues than what are actually reported.

  • Jocelyn


    August 2nd, 2010 at 12:43 PM

    But why would you want to involve the grandparents if they were abusive, Helen? I grew up in fear of beatings and verbal abuse over nothing and now I’ve to treat them as sweet, doting grandparents just because I gave birth? No way. I’ll never let mine come within ten miles of my children, ever. That’s the price they pay for their actions.

  • Graeme


    August 2nd, 2010 at 2:42 PM

    Well done the Texas Project Support team for initiating this therapy! I hope many other states pay attention and follow suit for the sake of children everywhere.

  • lenny


    August 2nd, 2010 at 5:21 PM

    its a good thing that such care is being taken to ensure proper parenting of kids out there.because as I have seen,this recession has not only brought financial limitations to a lot of people but has also made them a lot more frustrated and prone to getting angry for the smallest of is very much possible for such people to lash out at their kids in a fit of rage and hence this program can be a life-saver.

  • Russel


    August 2nd, 2010 at 7:02 PM

    I feel the same, Jocelyn. We may not be able to do much when we’re kids, however adulthood is a whole different ball game. My father was a bully and I will not subject my children to his poisonous behavior. He’s now in a nursing home and I visit out of a stupid sense of duty, alone. He will never meet them. As far as the kids are concerned, he lives abroad and that’s why they don’t see him. I’m comfortable with the lie. It’s much preferable to the alternative.

  • eddy


    August 3rd, 2010 at 2:51 AM

    as someone who was abused by his parents in his childhood,I really have gotten over it over time and I would never want to put my own children through that hell.
    I want them to have the best of everything and the best parents ever.

  • Sydney B

    Sydney B

    August 3rd, 2010 at 4:34 AM

    While I applaud the efforts at programs like this which really does try to get the mothers to do the right thing and get them some help I still strongly feel that the children are the ones having to suffer at the hamds of a system that is not on their side. I am all for people receiving treatment and trying to keep thefamily together. But it makes me madder than you know to think about the kids who continue to have to deal with all of this crap in the home as that parents try to work their stuff out and get it together. Just because they are in a class does not mean that they are going to change overnight- that takes time and unfortunately that is something that a lot of these kids don’t have. It could be dangerous for them to wait it out while the mom gets this treatment and for many there is nowhere safe to go in the interim.

  • Alan


    August 3rd, 2010 at 8:36 PM

    Mothers are so quick to anger nowadays! I remember when a mom was the epitome of calm in the eye of a storm. They were feminine and genteel too. Women now are scary and brash. They are more like men than women. I’d hate to be a young man having to pick one of them to bear my children. Feminism has a lot to answer for.

  • beth


    August 4th, 2010 at 4:38 AM

    What helps is knowing that there will be services and resources available for you when you need them. That there will be people who care and understand what you are going through and will be there to hold your hand, have a shoulder for you to cry on, and have words of kindness and advice when you need them the most. What helps is knowing that others are not judging you for your mistakes of the past but are there cheering you on for the steps that you are taking toward a better fiture for you and your family.

  • Val


    August 4th, 2010 at 6:20 AM

    Sorry to burst your bubble Alan. The days of women wearing crinolines and fluttering eyelashes from behind fans are gone. Pick one to bear my children? It’s not a cattle market. Your attitude is exactly why feminism was needed. Women don’t need a man around. They don’t even need a whole one to get pregnant. How does it feel to know you’re as much use as donor sperm? LOL. Move with the times please!

  • Samantha


    August 4th, 2010 at 1:13 PM

    Mothers have it tougher today than any generation that’s gone before. They are expected to work and raise a family, often alone after divorce or separation. It’s very stressful. It’s no wonder they lose it sometimes. It’s inexcusable but understandable.

  • Bert


    August 4th, 2010 at 3:34 PM

    I disagree, Samantha. What was tough was living in my grandmother’s era: no contraception, no household appliances, no indoor plumbing, half a dozen kids underfoot, and having to work your tail off to keep the family and home in good order. THAT was work.

  • Hope


    August 5th, 2010 at 2:22 PM

    The Texas project should be adopted nationally given its success rate. Being able to consult with a professional that you feel cares in the privacy of your own home has to help.

  • not cool

    not cool

    February 14th, 2011 at 3:39 AM

    I am all for people receiving treatment and trying to keep the family together. But it makes me madder than you know to think about the kids who continue to have to deal with all of this crap in the home as that parents try to work their stuff out and get it together

  • Eloise Beda

    Eloise Beda

    October 22nd, 2011 at 10:08 AM

    An Abusive Mother’s hatred for her daughter is overwheming. This is killing the loving and caring Father. Her abusive nature has separated the Father from his Family. What scares me the most is….. that Her abusive nature is showing up in my young son’s personality.

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