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Children who live in homes where there is domestic violence grow up in an environment that is unpredictable, filled with tension and anxiety and dominated by fear. This can lead to significant emotional and psychological trauma, similar to that experienced by children who are victims of child abuse. Instead of growing up in an emotionally and physically safe, secure, nurturing and predictable environment, these children are forced to worry about the future;  they try to predict when it might happen next and try to protect themselves and their siblings. Often getting through each day is the main objective so there is little time left for fun, relaxation or planning for the future.  

Emotional and psychological trauma

Children living with domestic violence suffer emotional and psychological trauma from the impact of living in a household that is dominated by tension and fear. These children will see their mother threatened, demeaned or physically or sexually assaulted. They will overhear conflict and violence and see the aftermath of the violence such as their mother's injuries and her traumatic response to the violence.  Children also may be used and manipulated by the abuser to hurt their mother.
A report undertaken by the Queensland Domestic Violence Taskforce 1988 stated that 90 per cent of children present in violent homes had witnessed the violence perpetrated against their mother. In research undertaken by the Australian Institute of Criminology 15 per cent of young people surveyed had experienced domestic violence and 32 per cent of young people knew someone who had experienced domestic violence (National Research on Young People's Attitudes and Experiences of Domestic Violence 2000).  Children witnessing the violence inflicted on their mothers often evidence behavioural, somatic or emotional problems similar to those experienced by physically abused children (Jaffe, Wolfe, and Wilson 1990). 

Risk of physical injury

Children may be caught in the middle of an assault by accident or because the abuser intends it.  Infants can be injured if being held by their mothers when the abuser strikes out. Children may be hurt if struck by a weapon or a thrown object and older children are frequently assaulted when they intervene to defend or protect their mothers (Hilberman and Munson 1977-78). 

Direct victim of physical or sexual abuse:

A child may be directly targeted by the perpetrator and suffer physical abuse, sexual abuse and/or serious neglect. It has been more than 2 decades since the overlap between domestic violence and child abuse was identified; men who abuse their partners are also likely to assault their children. The abuse of women who are mothers usually predates the infliction of child abuse (Stark & Flitcraft 1988). At least half of all abusive partners also batter their children (Pagelow 1989). The more severe the abuse of the mother, the worse the child abuse (Bowker, Arbitell, and McFerron 1988).
Daughters are more likely than sons to become victims (Dobash and Dobash 1979). Woman abuse is also the context for sexual abuse of female children. Where the mother is assaulted by the father, daughters are exposed to a risk of sexual abuse 6.51 times greater than girls in non-abusive families (Bowker, Arbitell and McFerron 1988). Where a male is the perpetrator of child abuse, one study demonstrated that there is a 70 per cent chance that any injury to the child will be severe and 80 per cent of child fatalities within the family are attributable to fathers or father surrogates (Bergman, Larsen and Mueller 1986). 

Violence occurring during or after separation including child abduction

There is clear evidence that abusers often increase their use of violence and abuse to stop their partners from leaving, or to force their partners and children to return home following separation. The abuser may attempt to take the children away from their mother to punish the woman for leaving and in some cases children have even been killed.  The risk to children during and following separation is substantial.  


Children and young people's reactions to domestic violence

  • Self-blame
  • Helplessness
  • Grief
  • Ambivalence
  • Fear
  • Dread
  • Terror 
  • Worry
  • Sadness
  • Helplessness
  • Shame
  • Anger
  • Numbness 

How domestic violence impacts on children

  • Poor concentration
  • Aggression, hyperactivity, disobedience
  • Disturbed sleep, nightmares
  • Withdrawal, low self-esteem
  • Showing no emotion ('spaced out')
  • Always on edge, wary
  • Fantasise about normal home life
  • Pessimism about the future
  • Physical symptoms 

How domestic violence impacts on young people

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Withdrawal
  • Abuse of parents
  • Take on a caretaker role prematurely, trying to protect their mother
  • Poorly developed communication skills
  • Parent-child conflict
  • Enter marriage or a relationship early to escape the family home
  • Embarrassed about family
  • Shame
  • Poor self-image
  • Eating disorders
  • Low academic achievement
  • Dropping out from school
  • Low self-esteem
  • Staying away from home
  • Leaving home early
  • Running away from home
  • Feeling isolated from others
  • Violent outbursts
  • Participating in dangerous risk-taking behaviours to impress peers
  • Alcohol and substance abuse
  • Difficulty communicating feelings
  • Nightmares
  • Experiencing violence in their own dating relationships
  • Physical injuries when they try to intervene to protect mother
  • Suicide 

The extent each child will be impacted varies depending on:

  • The length of time the child was exposed to the domestic violence;
  • The age of the child when the exposure began;
  • Whether the child has also experienced child abuse with the domestic violence;
  • The presence of additional stressors such as poverty, community violence, parental substance abuse or mental illness and disruptions in family life;
  • Whether the child has a secure attachment to a non-abusing parent or other significant adult;
  • Whether the child has a supportive social network;
  • Whether the child has strong cultural identity and ethnic pride;
  • The child's own positive coping skills and experience of success;
  • Family access to health, education, housing, social services and employment. 
Often the behavioural and emotional impacts of domestic and family violence will improve when children and their mothers are safe, the violence is no longer occurring and they receive support and specialist counselling.
Apart from the emotional, physical, social and behavioural damage abuse creates for children, statistics show that domestic violence can also become a learned behaviour. This means that children may grow up to think it is okay to use violence to get what they want and as adults that it is okay for there to be violence in their relationships.


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