Diagnoses are Risky for Mothers Apart

As you can imagine, mothers who have become separated from their children through family courts processes are usually profoundly distressed. Often survivors of trauma, abuse and violence, they sometimes just exist rather than have any quality of life. Estrangements might last for for a short time, or for very many years – some mothers never see their children again. Mothers apart may exist in sad, angry, depressed, anxious and stressed states and never find a way out of the darkness. Commonly, coercive and controlling partners engineer mother-child separations that result from private children’s proceedings. The child can be lost to the mother’s abuser if his strategy to punish her for leaving, for example, is to turn her child against her. This is a double blow as a mother not only has to live apart from her child but also cannot protect the child from her abuser, especially as she has no proof of abuse, as is so often the case with coercive control. Such mothers are, naturally, grieving – and the grief is complex as there are so many losses. It can be disenfranchised when the child is not dead but estranged and the mother does not benefit from all the normal societal responses, eg., sympathy, a ceremony, etc.

Mothers apart carry their sorrow and rage for years and can find it hard to regulate their emotions. They may suffer terrible guilt and shame and drive themselves to painful psychological states by self-punishing/self-harming behaviours. Mothers who have their children wrested from them by manipulative and powerful ex-partners are often wrongfully accused by professionals and services as unsafe parents in the process. This can manifest in deep shame, self-hate and a profound sense of failure. There will be no end of people to reinforce these messages through one of society’s favourite past-times: mother-blaming.

Mothers blame themselves anyway – they don’t need others’ judgement. Post-violent and controlling relationships they also suffer survivor’s guilt. How could they escape their abusers without their children? How can they lead any kind of life knowing their precious children are still living with abuse and danger? Mothers who know nothing of being separated from a child exclaim that they would never leave their children, that they couldn’t live without their children – that they would die for their children. But mothers apart thought those things too once upon a time. They also believed that their children would never reject them, would never stop loving them, would never want to be looked after anyone else but mummy. Other mothers just don’t understand and are usually more critical, judgemental and blaming than anyone else. How could she? They say. Their disgust adds to the burden already carried by mothers without their children.

Most mothers apart try and find help and support via their GPs or from the psych professionals for their unbearable emotional and psychological symptoms. In most Western cultures,  the medical model reigns, so grieving and traumatised mothers recovering from abuse and trauma are often diagnosed with range of mental health problems: clinical depression, general anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. They can be prescribed very powerful psychiatric and anti-psychotic drugs, as is routine with perceived mentally illness – often assumed to be a chemical imbalance in the brain needing medication.

The most common diagnosis is depression, which is identified using the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (DSM), now in its 5th edition. Written by a panel of psychiatrists, this is the bible used by GPs to identify and diagnose mental health problems. For a diagnosis of depression, the patient needs to display 5 out of 9 symptoms provided as a checklist in the DSM. For example, depressed mood, decreased interest in pleasure, or feelings of worthlessness. Because almost everyone who is grieving matches the criteria for clinical depression, the DSM used to contains what was known as the ‘grief exception’ or ‘bereavement exclusion’.  So, a mother recently suffering loss, will not be considered as having a mental health problem for the duration of a period allowed for grief. However, this period diminished over the years from a year to only 2 weeks before scrapping it all together. Now, the grief symptoms experienced by a mother apart are more likely to be recognised as any number of disorders as described above and she could receive a diagnosis for treatment with medication.

The problem with this for mothers apart is that they are often involved in protracted court cases of many years with manipulative exes over the children. A diagnosis of a mental health problem or personality disorder could affect a woman’s chances of getting her children back or having regular contact – or even seeing them at all. This will be especially true in cases of coercive control when an abuser will be seizing every opportunity to malign the mother. As a therapist, I have lost count of the number of perfectly sane mothers who are ordered by the courts to be assessed by a psychiatrist or a psychologist in order to have contact with their children. These psychs are paid thousands of pounds to listen to the mother tell her story and, very often, when she strays into details of sexual and domestic violence that’s when she’ll be pronounced either a liar or delusional if she has no evidence. And, let’s face it, it would be very difficult to gather evidence of either child sex abuse or coercive control, for the woman who is no longer with her abuser, especially if he has care of her children. She will often have only her story and her memories, which can be refuted. Either conclusion – liar or delusional –  can mean no contact. So, for the mother seeking to prove that SDVA took place ,and that she is not a liar or mentally ill, a word of warning… It can be a very risky business for mothers apart to go anywhere near those that assess and diagnose for the family courts in this regard.


About Dr Laura Monk

My doctoral research investigated how to improve professionals' responses to mothers who become separated from their children. I developed a training workshop for the professionals who mothers come into contact with - largely at the intersection of health and social care, the family courts and domestic abuse services. I am also a counsellor and psychotherapist and I run self-care retreats for practitioners in Spain and the UK www.drlauramonk.com/retreats
This entry was posted in child contact, coercive control, family courts, mother-blaming and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Diagnoses are Risky for Mothers Apart

  1. Chrissie says:

    I am in this position, both my children have been alienated from me, I believe I am mos diagnosed from years of abuse, and social services totally aligned with the abuser, they won’t even entertain me, yet he has the history of violence, I am heart broken and can’t move out of grief cycle, my ex just bully’s me and my kids have been cut off after 14 years of being a good mother, now I feel I should have stayed and took the abuse, rather than lose my children to such an abusive man.
    I don’t want to live anymore.


    • Dear Chrissie, I’m so sorry for not replying sooner. I’ve had a difficult time lately but nothing like what you’re going through. I really do understand your grief and heartbreak though and I’m wondering how you are? Best, Laura


  2. Pingback: Diagnoses are Risky for Mothers Apart — mothersapartproject – Kateemilybourne2018

  3. Natalie says:

    I have been living with ongoing chronic emotional, financial, legal abuse in family court and poisoning of my relationship with my two children by my ex husband for the last 14 years since I left the marriage and divorce. My children who I once had loving close relationships with has been reduced to a couple of brief visits of a few hours per year for the last 6 years.

    I am devastated by the loss of my once close loving mother-son & daughter relationships. I can’t get closure on the grief of the loss.

    Are there any resources, support groups in Canada or online for myself besides the charity group in London?

    God bless you for the work you are doing. You are an important voice for us mothers who are suffering terribly, silently and invisible from society.


    • Hi Natalie
      I’m sorry to hear of your situation. It’s very familiar to me and I understand what you’re going through.
      I’m afraid I don’t know of any resources in Canada. Did you look at my resources page on this blog – it’s under the tab, Supporting Mothers Apart Network.
      Thank you for your support.
      Stay strong, Laura


  4. Natalie says:

    Thank you for replying Laura.

    A wonderful list of resources & organizations in the UK! I joined the Match Mothers network.

    Here in Ontario, Canada there are very few organizations that can offer any real support to us women experiencing this type of coercive control. I am reaching out to my local women’s shelter right now for help. They are aware of this issue of abuse men/fathers trying to destroy
    the mother- child(ren) relationship. I directed them to the Match Mothers website as well.

    They are telling me they are see a significant increase in this abuse these days & particularly with all the legal family court and financial abuse.

    There is an urgent need I am seeing here for specific and concrete supports to mothers apart which is virtually non-existent. I will look into perhaps starting a small community-based support group where I live for women. If there is a need for this it will grow. If I can support even one woman then in my mind it will be a success.

    We women need to band together all over the world in our communities, for support to effectively root out this very destructive behavior to women and children.

    God bless you in your work,



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