Domestic and family violence is a significant social problem which has become the focus of increased community concern. Whether children experience violence themselves or witness this behaviour, this violence can have long-lasting impacts on their wellbeing and development.
Domestic and family violence impacts upon the fundamental rights of children and young people to live in safety and security. It is characterised by patterns of abusive behaviour in an intimate relationship or other type of family relationship.
Domestic and family violence is "any behaviour that is physically, sexually, emotionally, psychologically, economically, spiritually and culturally abusive, threatening, coercive or aimed at controlling or dominating another person". (Queensland Government, 2016)
The impacts of domestic and family violence on children
For children, the impacts of repeated abuse and exposure to domestic and family violence are profound and traumatic. Children do not become used to violence, they adapt. When there is violence in the home, children are always affected, even if they are asleep or not in the room when the violence occurs. When violence occurs, children may feel scared and ashamed. They may even think that they caused the problem, or may grow up perpetrating violence upon others (Crittenden 2017).
What are some of the signs to look out for?
A child’s response to repeated domestic violence depends on a number of factors including their age, gender, personality and family role. Some of the immediate effects can include:
- Blaming themselves for the violence
- Experiencing sleeping difficulties, such as nightmares
- Regression to an earlier stage of development, such as thumb sucking and bed wetting
- Becoming increasingly anxious or fearful
- Displaying aggressive or destructive behaviour
- Starting to withdraw from people and events
- Becoming a victim or perpetrator of bullying
- Starting to show cruelty to animals
- Experiencing stress-related illnesses, such as headache or stomach pain
- Speech difficulties, such as stuttering
- Misusing drugs and alcohol (in young adults).
In recent years, the experiences of children and young people witnessing violence have been increasingly understood through the lens of complex trauma. Trauma is commonly understood as a distressing or life-threatening situation. Complex trauma is cumulative, repetitive and interpersonally generated.
The effects complex trauma may impact on the child’s emotional and physical wellbeing, their attachment and their development, including social, physical and psychological development (Morris, Humphreys, & Hegarty, 2015).
The effects of domestic and family violence on children and young people are serious, even if they aren't the target of the violence or abuse.
Children in homes with domestic violence need to hear certain messages to help them recover from trauma.
They need to know that the abuse is not their fault and that no one deserves to be abused, no matter what. They need help with getting and staying safe.
What can you do?
If you or a colleague recognises the signs of abuse in children or in families, please consider the following actions:
- Provide support to the child or young person
- Let them know that violence or abuse is never okay
- Assure them that it’s not their fault
- Make sure they know how to call for help, including how to call the Police on Triple Zero (000) and how to give the address of their home
- Contact 1800RESPECT for further information and support
If you are in contact with the parent or guardian of a child growing up in an abusive household, you may also wish to encourage them to seek support from a domestic violence organisation or to speak to a counsellor.
Please remember, your safety and the safety of the children and family members are the priority. If you are unsure what to do, please direct them to the following services:
1800 55 1800
24/7 phone and online counselling service for young people aged 5 to 25
1800 737 732
National Counselling Helpline