Vicarious Violence: The Cruelest Face of Gender Violence

Vicarious violence is suffered by children, but the ultimate goal of the aggressor is to cause psychological suffering to the mother. We explore this behavior and its effects.
Vicarious Violence: The Cruelest Face of Gender Violence
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 07 February, 2023

When you see news stories of parents ending the lives of their children, you obviously feel shocked. Indeed, it’s difficult to conceive that a parent could ever be capable of doing something so awful. In reality, these actions are the maximum expression of a kind of gender violence. Moreover, it’s usually been brewing and incubating for a long time. It’s known as vicarious violence.

We must emphasize that the ultimate goal of these acts isn’t to attack the children but to harm the mother in a dramatic and irreversible way. She’s on the receiving end of a kind of violence that tries to control, manipulate, and cause her enormous pain. However, the action is carried out toward the sons and daughters. They’re used as a means to that end. This nuance is crucial in order not to confuse vicarious violence with other realities, such as parricide.

Father yelling at his son
In vicarious violence, the father is capable of exercising extreme violence with his children to cause harm to his partner or ex-partner.

Vicarious violence

The term vicarious violence was first coined in 2012 by Sonia Vaccaro, a clinical psychologist and judicial expert in gender violence. It’s defined as the kind of violence that seeks to harm women through their loved ones. It can occur with pets or people close to the victim. However, it usually focuses on their children. In effect, a mother’s children are used with the aim of causing psychological suffering to her.

Vicarious violence is a type of instrumental violence. Its purpose is to intimidate and show dominance and control in a highly unbalanced and unequal power relationship.

The maximum expression of this type of violence is the murder of a mother’s children. It’s a tremendously cruel act that seeks to psychologically destroy the mother. There are also other ways in which vicarious violence occurs. For example, when a father manipulates his children by way of lies and slander in order to turn them against their mother. Consequently, the children may attack her, develop a bad image of her, or not want to be in her company. Willfully threatening, mistreating, or neglecting minors may also fall into the category of vicarious violence.

The actions are all aimed at blackmailing the woman. The aim is that she’ll give in and submit to the control of the partner or ex-partner to avoid the suffering of their children. For this reason, it’s extremely common for vicarious violence to occur in situations of separation or divorce or when the other party is trying to rebuild their life.

Some facts about vicarious violence

Sadly, this phenomenon is very present in society today and affects many families. There are certain factors that should be considered to better understand this type of violence. A recent study gives some relevant data:

  • In most cases (82 percent) the aggressor is the biological father of the children. That said, the violence can also be exercised by the mother’s partner or ex-partner.
  • In more than half of the cases, the violence occurs after the couple is separated or divorced.
  • Previous gender violence was detected in 74 percent of the cases analyzed.
  • Regarding criminal records of the aggressors, they only existed in 26 percent of the cases. They were mostly due to gender violence.
  • Most murders are committed when the parents are in charge of the children, enjoying visitation or joint custody.
  • There were previous threats in 60 percent of the cases studied. However, despite having alerted the police, none of them took specific protection measures for their children.
Father threatening his daughter

The cruelest face of gender violence

When a victim of gender violence decides to separate from their abuser and uses the law to guarantee their safety as much as possible, vicarious violence is the instrument that the aggressor uses to continue to generate their suffering. That’s why many men, who’ve never actively taken on the parental role or cared for their children, request joint or full custody, in order to continue exercising control over their partners.

To prevent this type of devastating situation from continuing to occur, a change must be brought about at the social level. It shouldn’t be forgotten that gender violence is based on a culture that remains unequal. Moreover, it tends to question the suffering of women and minimizes the threats and attacks exerted on them.

Education in academic fields, awareness of this reality, and, above all, the adoption of measures that seek to guarantee the safety of minors are essential. An abuser who threatens their partner or ex-partner to use the children to continue exercising control, can’t be a good father. Indeed, children shoudn’t ever be exposed to such a risk.

Editorial note: The term vicarious violence responds to an ideology (a way of thinking), more specifically a gender ideology. However, in reality, there are people of any gender, who unfortunately choose to harm their partners by making or using a third party, usually children.

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The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.