Living with domestic and family violence is a distressing experience for children. The effects can be traumatising, ongoing and long-lasting. They can build up over time and impact on every aspect of children's lives, including health, development and wellbeing.
Children are affected by violence and abuse if they:
When children experience domestic and family violence, it can impact their:
Behaviours – they can act out, over-react, be hostile, impulsive, aggressive or defiant. They can also withdraw or run away. This can all be normal for children who have been traumatised by family or domestic violence. It does not mean the children have 'disorders'. Drug and alcohol use can be a problem with older children.
Development – normal development can be impaired. They can look like they are regressing or acting younger than their age. This can be a subconscious way of trying to get to a state where they are safe and secure. It can also be a result of the harm to the brain’s development caused by exposure to trauma.
Relationships – they may avoid closeness and push people away. Children may also attach to peers or adults who may be unsafe for them, to try to develop an alternative secure base, if home feels insecure.
Emotions – children often feel fearful, stressed, depressed, angry, anxious or ashamed. Emotional security is the foundation of healthy relationships later in life. This security can be damaged if attachment between the parent, guardian or primary carer and baby is disrupted by domestic violence.
Learning – they may not be able to concentrate at school because they are constantly on the lookout for danger. This can be subconscious. Detentions, missed school and frequent changes of schools can also affect learning.
Cognitions – children may have low self-esteem, and think negatively about themselves or people around them. (For example, they may think, 'everyone hates me'.)
Physical health – a range of illnesses may be related to domestic and family violence. Headaches, stomach aches, stress reactions (for example rashes or immune system related illnesses) and sleep disturbances (for example nightmares, insomnia or bedwetting) are common.
How quickly and completely children recover from the affects of domestic and family violence depends on whether:
Recovery for children can also depend on a number of other factors being in place:
The effects of domestic and family violence on a child’s wellbeing and development can be long-lasting and complex. Witnessing violence can include seeing a range of controlling behaviours and is not limited to physical abuse. For example, children are affected if they hear violence in another room, have to modify their behaviour to prevent outbursts, see their mother’s fear or have to comfort her following an incident or if they come home to evidence of abuse having occurred. You can find out more about the impacts of domestic and family violence by reading, Impacts of domestic and family violence on children.
This page provides practical information about things that a parent, carer, friend or family member can do to support a child who is exposed to domestic or family violence. Children exposed to domestic and family violence are encouraged to speak to a trusted adult about what is happening at home. Family and friends can also play a role in developing a safety plan for the mother and child, with the assistance of family counselling or other services. Safety planning information on this page has been developed with the support of domestic and family violence experts. It is a guide for things that can be included when developing a safety plan with a mother and child. For more information visit the Safety planning page.
There are things you can do to counteract the effect that exposure to domestic or family violence is having on children at home.
Depending on the child's age, they can play an important role in developing their own safety plan with the assistance of their mother or primary carer and a support service. Children should be able to discuss, plan and practice steps they can take to be safe in a home where there is domestic or family violence.
Support people like family and friends can help to develop and carry out a safety plan too. They can also offer a safe place to go or be ready to listen and offer support when a child asks for it. Any conversations with a child about safety planning should make clear that it is not their responsibility to stop the violence, the most important thing is their safety.
A successful safety plan will include the names of people a child can realistically turn to when they feel unsafe. Children need to have the chance to practise what they might need to do and say in certain situations and they need to have their own written or visual copy of the plan.
A safety plan developed with the support of a service should include:
There are some practical ways that a friend or family member can support a child exposed to domestic or family violence, in addition to the support received from the mother or primary carer and professional services.