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When people think of domestic and family violence, they often think of how much it hurts the adult victim. It’s true that domestic and family violence is most often violent, abusive or intimidating behaviour by a man towards a woman. But what you may not realise is that children also experience domestic violence and this affects their physical and emotional health and wellbeing.

1 in 4 children are exposed to domestic violence.
(Australian Domestic and Family Violence Clearinghouse 2011, The Impact of Domestic Violence on Children: A Literature Review)

Of those women who experience domestic and family violence, more than 50% have children in their care. Domestic and family violence was the most commonly reported issue to Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ) for children at risk of significant harm in 2010, with more than 20,000 reports received. Domestic and family violence is also the leading cause of homelessness for children in Australia.

The impact of domestic and family violence on children is immense and can often affect them for the rest of their lives. Children and young people don't have to see the violence to be affected by it.

Watch: What About Us? Perspectives of the children of domestic violence

The effects

Studies show that living with domestic violence can cause physical and emotional harm to children and young people in the following ways:

  • ongoing anxiety and depression
  • emotional distress
  • eating and sleeping disturbances
  • physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomach aches
  • find it hard to manage stress
  • low self-esteem
  • self-harm
  • be aggressive towards friends and school mates
  • feel guilt or blame themselves for the violence
  • have trouble forming positive relationships
  • develop phobias and insomnia
  • struggle with going to school and doing school work
  • use bullying behaviour or become a target of bullying
  • difficulty concentrating
  • find it hard to solve problems
  • have less empathy and caring for others

Young people exposed to domestic and family violence are more likely to:

  • suffer from depression
  • be homeless
  • abuse drugs and alcohol
  • engage in risk-taking behaviours
  • experience or use violence and be controlling and manipulative in relationships

Physical safety

Sometimes being exposed to domestic and family violence isn’t just a matter of witnessing it. Children and young people are often physically hurt during violent episodes, either accidentally or deliberately.

Children and young people need to grow up in a secure and nurturing environment. Where domestic or family violence exists, the home is not safe or secure and children are scared about what might happen to them and the people they love.

Effects of violence on children by age

In utero - An unborn child may be injured in the womb due to violence aimed at the mother’s abdomen or suffer from exposure to drugs or alcohol that a mother may use to cope with stress.

Babies - An infant exposed to violence may have difficulty developing attachments with their caregivers and in extreme cases suffer from failure to thrive.

Toddler - A preschooler’s development may be affected and they can suffer from eating and sleep disturbances.

Child - A school-aged child may struggle with peer relationships, academic performance, and emotional stability.

Teenager - An adolescent may be at higher risk of substance misuse or of either perpetrating or becoming a victim of dating violence.

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Last updated: 21 Oct 2019