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Domestic and family violence and children

  • Exposure to domestic and family violence can affect every aspect of children's lives
  • Being a witness to violence and abuse is a distressing experience for children, whether or not the violence is directed at them
  • With a safe environment and the right support, children can recover from the trauma of domestic and family violence

The impacts of domestic and family violence on children

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.

When are children affected by domestic and family violence?

Children are affected by violence and abuse if they:

  • Witness or hear the violence against their parent, guardian or carer, or see their fear
  • Have to hide or run from abuse because they're afraid
  • Have to constantly watch themsleves around an abuser to try to prevent outbursts
  • Have to comfort, clean up or take extra responsibilities for siblings, their parent or primary carer or others in the home following violence
  • Are victimised for supporting their parent or primary carer
  • Are encouraged to join in with abuse or contempt for their parent, guardian or carer
  • Can't be cared for properly due to the abuse, or because the abuse is causing poor mental health and exhaustion for their parent or primary carer
  • Experience poor bonding with their parent or primary carer as infants because of domestic or family violence
  • Are abused themselves – people who abuse their partners or ex-partners often abuse their children as well
  • Are forced to have ongoing contact with someone who scares them or whose presence reminds them of times when they have been traumatised (that is, the person acts as a 'trauma trigger’)

How are children affected by domestic and family violence?

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.

Can children recover from domestic and family violence?

How quickly and completely children recover from the affects of domestic and family violence depends on whether:

  • They can be kept safe from violence and from reminders of previous trauma – known as ‘trauma triggers’
  • They are supported and comforted within a 'protective cocoon' of care after they experience trauma
  • Their schools, childcare centres, support services and centres provide an understanding and supportive environment to help with healing and recovery
  • There is good communication between the parent, guardian or primary carer and the school, childcare centre, support service or centre that is supporting the child and family
  • They can have security, safety and care in their everyday lives
  • They have access to specialised trauma-informed counselling, if they need it
  • They can rebuild a safe and secure attachment with their parent, guardian, primary carer, or another adult who can act as a protective carer, if they have been exposed to violence in their early years. Support is also essential for the parent, guardian or primary carer for the secure attachment to be rebuilt between them.

What other factors can affect a child's recovery?

Recovery for children can also depend on a number of other factors being in place:

  • Children may have access to other adults in their lives with whom they have a good relationship, such as:
    • A grandparent, an aunt, uncle, other relative
    • An adult family friend, who understands what is happening in the family and can provide some protective support to the child
    • A support worker
  • Children may also have access to other social networks such as being part of an activity or sports group. This enables them to have other friends and adults who can be supportive and where they are able to experience positive ways that adults relate to each other and to children.
  • Sometimes the social conditions that children are living in, such as living in poverty or where families are isolated from other networks, can have a negative impact on their ability to recover. Families living in poverty or without access to other social networks can experience greater stress levels than other families.
  • Children may experience bullying or other negative behaviour in other settings that may impact on their ability to deal with and recover from domestic and family violence.
  • Children may have internal strengths or cope with stress in ways that are protective. This might include accessing other forms of support, being engaged in hobbies or activities such as sports that allow them some time away from the stressful situation they’re living in and to focus on other things. They may also display a positive attitude that allows them to get on with things.

Domestic and family violence: Children's safety

11 NOV 2014

Offering support

  • If you, a child or another person is in immediate danger call 000 now
  • There are practical things you can do to support a child who is exposed to domestic or family violence
  • The right support can make a child safer and provide a pathway to recovery

How to support children impacted by violence

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.

How can I support children at home?

There are things you can do to counteract the effect that exposure to domestic or family violence is having on children at home.

  • Help your children to know when there are warning signs of danger
  • Keep the conversation practical like other safety conversations you might have around natural disaster planning or fire safety
  • Practice emergency escape routes – talk about these at the same time as you talk through a fire or hurricane drill
  • Teach your children that it is not their responsibility to stop the abuser when they are angry or violent
  • Teach your children who they can call or where the can go in an emergency – this includes how to call 000 and ask for the police, and how to give their address
  • Tell schools or childcare centres about the violence, along with school parents you can trust. They can keep a look out for signs of escalation and also help with caring for your child’s emotional needs. A community of care helps keep kids safe. Give the school or childcare centre a copy of your protection order, and a photo of the perpetrator so they know who to look out for. 

How do I create a safety plan with children?

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:

  • Step by step actions the child can take to increase safety at home, outside the home or in situations such as contact visits
  • When would it be important to leave and how they might know this
  • The safe places they could go and how to get there
  • Suggestions to reduce risk of harm, such as leaving early when things feel unsafe or not stepping in to stop the violence
  • Contact details for three or more people the child could turn to who would listen and take actions to assist the child
  • How to contact Emergency Services and other services that may be needed
  • What to take when leaving, such as money, something that they treasure or get comfort from, such as a calming toy or blanket, important numbers in an escape bag

How do I offer support as a family member or friend?

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.

  • Provide lots of affection and care
  • Do your best to model a positive attitude and do not burden children with negative beliefs or feelings
  • Provide reassurances to the child, for example that the abuse was not their fault in any way, that mum will be all right, that child is loved and will be taken care of
  • Be available to talk with the child at any time
  • Ask children if they have any worries and respond to their worries in simple words
  • Let the child know that they are not alone, violence happens in other families too. Tell them it is OK to be angry but it is not OK to hurt others
  • Listen to and accept all the child’s feelings about the abuse and the abuser, including the positive feelings
  • Talk to them about appropriate ways of showing feelings
  • Allow them to cry and be sad
  • Name and praise positive behaviours
  • Tell the child what they are good at, highlight their strengths
  • Play together, spend quality, fun time together
  • Find other adults or professionals for the child to talk to about all the many feelings the abuse has stirred up
  • Give teenagers information about who else they can talk to
  • Express pride and gratitude that the child was brave enough to talk about the abuse and accept help