The impact of domestic violence against children can be wide reaching and serious, whether domestic violence is aimed directly at them or not. Here’s how to recognise the effects of domestic violence against children, and how to help support their safety.
In Australia, one in four children experience domestic violence. While we often talk about children being ‘witnesses’ to domestic violence, whether it’s against their mother or another family member, research shows that they are not passive witnesses at all – even if the domestic violence is not directly aimed at them.
The direct and indirect impacts of domestic and family violence on children can be serious, affecting their relationships, their sense of the world as an unsafe place, and ability to trust others close to them, for the rest of their lives. Children of all ages experience emotional and physical trauma. They experience the same states of mind and emotions of their parents, and they are especially sensitive to fear, dread and terror.
Many children are also exposed to the child protection system when violence is reported or the police are called to their home. While this ‘helping system’ can facilitate recovery from the trauma, in some instances it can worsen their distress and fears.
How children can be the targets of domestic violence against them
There are a number of ways children can be negatively impacted by domestic violence against them:
- Children can be harmed physically, during their mother’s pregnancy, or when a woman is assaulted while holding or protecting a child. Alternatively, they may be injured when trying to intervene to protect a parent. They may also be directly assaulted as a tactic to control their parent.
- Children can be harmed when they are witnesses of violence, when they hear violence or see the consequences of it (bruising, distress, damaged property). Children can also be impacted by the deteriorating health, wellbeing and parenting capacity of the parent who is the victim.
- Children may be included in the violence, such as being forced to spy on a parent or to participate in assaults.
- Children may feel, or be made to feel, responsible for the violence. This can be exacerbated when parents separate and they feel responsible for the conflict that continues around them.
- Children may live in fear of violence, always hypervigilant, watching their parent to sense the mood of the house, to predict an escalation, or know if a parent has been drinking – which can be a contributor to a violent outburst or hours-long tirade.
- Children can also live in secrecy and shame, which affects their social world. They might not feel safe to bring a friend from school home, or share what is happening with anyone outside the home. This can mean that they live in two worlds: The outside world, and the ‘real world’ of fear and confusion.
Recognising the behavioural signs of domestic violence in children
We know from extensive research that children can be impacted in the short to medium term with various behavioural and emotional problems, compared to other children who have not experienced violence. Τhey are more likely to display heightened aggression, impulsiveness and anxiety, and have less contacts with peers and people outside the family.
In the longer-term, the more serious concern is the impact of violence on the development of their brain. Trauma in childhood can be especially harmful because it overwhelms the child’s developing sense of self and their coping mechanisms. Children who live in a constant state of fear do not develop all the neural pathways other children do, which is why exposing children to violence is a form of child abuse.
Some children suffer the effects as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This kind of stress typically overwhelms a child’s coping abilities and may show up as extreme fear or helplessness. The child’s traumatic responses to the abuse of their parent are likely to be intensified if the person using violence is also someone they know, like their father, mother’s partner, or another person who is their carer.
Every child who experiences family violence will respond in their own way, but there are some common behaviours and signs to look for.
Some of the things you might see in the short term include:
- Being dazed or confused
- Regression, such as bed-wetting or thumb-sucking
- Having specific fears or insecurities that weren’t there before
- A preoccupation or frequent talk or play about a particular incident
- Changes in emotions, such as withdrawal, sadness, irritability, anger, moodiness
- Increased comfort-seeking or demanding behaviour
- Separation concerns.
In the medium term, you may also begin to see some of the following:
- A constant need for attention
- Frequent fighting
- Possessiveness of toys
- Seeking out pain
- Poorer school performance
- Poorer relationships with peers
- Stealing or lying
These lists aren’t exhaustive, and even children within the same family will likely respond in different ways. Similarly, some children may seem to be doing okay despite their experiences of family violence.
It’s important to understand that however they present, children will always be impacted in some way by experiencing violence. What matters most to their ability to thrive in the long-term is the support they have around them.
Supporting children’s resilience in the face of violence
Overall, children who experience family violence are more likely than other children to face emotional and relational challenges. But the small piece of good news in all this is that most children who experience family violence will go on to thrive as adults.
While an individual child’s personal attributes play some role in how resilient they are in the face of violence, we also know that having another supportive adult in the family plays a key role. This might be their protective parent (the parent who isn’t using violence); another family member like a grandparent, aunty or uncle; or someone in their social network outside the family, especially a reliable adult who is within walking distance.
If a child you know is experiencing family violence, you might not be able to stop the violence, but you can try to be a supportive, consistent person for them to turn to.
How to speak to a child experiencing family violence
As adults, it may feel like by not talking with children about the violence happening in their family, we are somehow protecting them from more exposure to the violence. What we know though, is that children want and need to talk about what has happened to them.
Children who’ve experienced violence will often disclose small parts of their story over time, rather than talking about everything all at once. By being reliable and consistent, you can create a foundation for a child to talk to you as they start to feel ready and able to.
How you have conversations with children will depend on their age and your relationship with them, but some good principles to remember include:
- Make sure the child is in a safe place before raising your concerns with them
- Remain calm – they need to know that they can trust you to remain safe and predictable when they tell you things
- Don’t rush them to tell you more, let them go at their own pace
- If you need to do something with what they tell you, let them know what you will do
- Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
Of course, there may be limits to how possible it is to be able to speak to your child openly about domestic violence. The person using violence may deliberately prevent the other parent or adult family members from helping, or use psychological abuse to make the parent feel that they are unable to help their child.
Ultimately, the person using violence is responsible for the harm they are causing to their children. If you are a parent experiencing violence who is being prevented from helping your child, think about whether there are any other supportive adults around them that they may turn to.
Getting help for children experiencing domestic violence
If you believe that a child is at risk of significant harm, you may need to consider making a child protection report by calling the Child Protection Helpline on 132 111. Find out more about making a child protection report here.
If you aren’t the child’s parent or carer, tell the child’s protective parent before you make the report if possible.
Services such as 1800RESPECT can also provide support and advice to those who are experiencing domestic violence, including parents with children. In an emergency, always call 000.
Relationships Australia provides support services and counselling to both adults and children who have been affected by domestic violence. Contact us for a safe, confidential conversation.