The effects of family violence on children

Do you know a child living in a home where there is a lot of yelling and swearing, throwing things, pushing or hitting? This is called family violence.

However, family violence is much more than physical abuse. It also includes:

  • emotional abuse (such as manipulation, isolation, put-downs, mind games),
  • financial abuse,
  • sexual abuse,
  • threats of violence and revenge,
  • property damage, smashing belongings,
  • harming pets.

Witnessing family violence can be very upsetting and frightening for children. These children live in a “climate of fear”. Family violence is an abuse of the intimate, trusting and safe relationship that a family should provide. Violence in the home is always wrong and it is never the child’s fault.

Many children who witness family violence have been found to have higher levels of behavioural and emotional problems than children who live in a safe and nurturing home. The impact can vary according to their age, sex, and role in the family. Some children feel responsible for the violence. They may think they are making things easier for their parents by appearing to cope with the situation, by trying to be quieter, or by not saying how they feel. While most children escape without physical injury they may bear emotional scars which in many cases can last a lifetime. They may have poor physical and mental health as adults and their early experience of living with violence may influence the relationships and lifestyles they choose as adults.

The partner who is being abused may feel intimidated, stressed, anxious, ashamed, guilty, depressed, and very alone. These feelings may be overwhelming and affect his or her ability to parent and meet the children’s needs. Children may not receive adequate care, supervision, food, or consistency. Some children may be abused or neglected.


Family violence hurts kids too

Violence at home can make a child feel really sad, helpless and confused. Often children think they have done something to cause the violence in their family. The effects on children who witness domestic violence may include:

  • blaming themselves for the violence.
  • feeling frightened, angry, depressed, sad, ashamed, helpless, and powerless.
  • physical reactions such as stomach ache, headaches, eating difficulties,   frequent illness.
  • crying a lot, becoming distressed easily, reacting negatively to new or changing situations, withdrawing from people or events, being hyper-alert to danger.
  • sleeping poorly, having nightmares or wetting the bed.
  • difficulty making friends and keeping friends, difficulty relating to peers.
  • not wanting to have friends at their home, feeling ashamed of themselves and their family.
  • learning difficulties or having trouble concentrating
  • behavioural problems such as running away, aggressive language and behaviour, acting out.
  • worrying about the safety of family members, and not wanting to go to school.
  • difficulty trusting other people, and wanting to control situations they are in.
  • believing that violence in families is normal or that you get what you want by using violence.
  • low self-esteem and a negative view of themselves. They may crave affection yet reject people’s attempts to be nice to them.
  • not accepting compliments, and reacting poorly to being corrected or receiving constructive criticism.
  • feeling angry and wanting to hurt themselves or somebody else, or to smash something.
  • play too rough and not cry or fuss when they get hurt.
  • difficulties with speech.
  • taking drugs or alcohol to cope (young people).
  • increased risk of mental illness.

This is a long list. These are a lot of social and emotional hurdles for a child to jump over all day, every day. Children living with family violence spend a lot of time and energy worrying and feeling anxious about things that they shouldn’t need to. Children should be free to spend their time and energy on growing, playing, learning, feeling safe and loved, and exploring relationships.


“The child that has spent all night under a bed, fearful for its mother’s life is never going to sit still and learn as adults demand. The child that has stood between its parents trying desperately to stop the violence is not going to hear the instructions of a teacher. The child that has witnessed its mother being beaten is certainly going to be lost in its own fears and trauma. The child that is terrified to go home will surely spend the day planning strategies for the coming evening.”  Sally Steele


What can we do for children?

Children need:

  • protection from physical, emotional, sexual, and verbal abuse
  • to know that bullying, abuse, and violence is not OK
  • to know that other children have had similar experiences
  • encouragement to talk about their feelings and worries
  • reassurance that it is not their fault
  • support from a trusted adult
  • good role models for managing anger and solving problems
  • support with schooling
  • professional help for behavioural and emotional problems
  • to know where they can get help in an emergency.

Support for the abused parent can improve the parent’s capacity to protect his/her children.


Information for Parents

from the Domestic Violence Resource Centre, Victoria (

“My partner hits me, but is good to the kids”

This is often said by parents who experience family violence, but by abusing you, he or she is not being “good to the kids”. Showing attention or affection to the children cannot make up for denying them (through the violence) their right to a safe and happy childhood.

You need help, so you can help your children

No matter how caring a parent you are, at some level your ability to do your best for your children will be affected by your partner’s violence. This is also a time when your children are likely to need your care and attention more than ever. Until you can get the help you need to make yourself safe, your children cannot feel safe or happy knowing that their parent is being hurt.

If you are the abusing partner

If you bully or abuse your partner or children, or find it hard to control your anger, you can learn ways other than using violence and abuse to deal with your feelings. Talk to someone who understands the problem of family violence or phone a domestic violence helpline. If you think you could be a danger to your family, leave until you have calmed down.


In New South Wales…

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, you can ring the Domestic Violence Line for help on 1800 656 463 (TTY 1800 671 442). The Domestic Violence Line is a statewide free-call number and is available 24 hours, seven days a week.


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