Children do not need to directly experience physical or sexual abuse to be impacted by it. Being a witness to violence, living in a house that is permeated by fear, is enough to have a significant impact on the wellbeing of children. Children experience domestic violence in many ways. They may be a witness to violence, either by seeing what is happening or by hearing it. For many children, hearing the safety of their parent or carer threatened, especially when this occurs over and over again, will be a terrifying experience that stays with them forever.
We know from so much research that has come out in recent years, that witnessing domestic violence potentially threatens children's physical and psychological wellbeing, as well as their social functioning, and their ability to engage at school and learn. Of course, all children are affected differently, and some children may be more resilient or have protective factors that mean that they will not be as greatly impacted.
The potential impactsExposure to violence in the family has similar impacts on many children that are common to other experiences of adversity or trauma. We generally see these impacts in the area of a child's emotional functioning, mental health, relationships, development and learning. In fact, we know that some of these impacts may last past childhood and adolescence and into adulthood.
Children exposed to domestic violence can live in a state of fear and heightened arousal. They may be overly anxious and sometimes see threat or danger outside of the home when there is none. These children may be easily startled or may become easily defensive and ready to protect themselves. They can frequently be very sensitive to the verbal and non-verbal cues that others express and may relate these back to their own experience. For example, at school, when a teacher raises their voice to gain the attention of the whole class, this may be perceived as a threatening situation and the response to this may be to try to escape the situation, to try to defend themselves or to withdraw and try not to be noticed.
Children who live in environments where domestic violence is prevalent can also experience difficulties in their attachments and relationships. When children are on alert, they may misread the signals of non-threatening others, as described above, and this can get in the way of forming friendships and other relationships with significant adults, such as teachers.
We also know that children who are affected by domestic violence may have difficulties at school with learning. When children live in situations where stress is ongoing, it can flood their brains with stress hormones, such as cortisol, that can interfere with memory, concentration and executive functioning. This can mean that children may find it more difficult to concentrate, more difficult to remember instructions and what they have already been taught and more difficult to use skills such as problem solving in the classroom. All of this can interfere with a child's ability to learn and can possibly mean that they may miss bits of learning or start to slip behind their peers.
Where to from here?Domestic violence is a serious issue that needs more attention in our society. We have outlined only some of the potential impacts of domestic violence on children above, there are certainly other impacts that we have not included here. The impact of domestic violence does not just end when the victims are safe and away from the perpetrator. The impacts can last through childhood, adolescence and on to adulthood. This makes it an even more crucial issue to be addressed. Reducing domestic violence also means reducing the incidence of mental health difficulties and learning difficulties that result for many children who are exposed. And the benefits of this can last a lifetime.
For more information on the impact of domestic violence, and other adversities, on children, please visit our websites:
For families - www.tgn.anu.edu.au
For people working with children - www.earlytraumagrief.anu.edu.au