Children and Domestic Violence

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Developmental Needs

Family violence hurts children too

Strategies for assisting children who are victims of domestic violence

How mothers can help their children


Recent evidence clearly shows that living in a family where a parent is being abused has significant traumatic effects on children.

Even when they do not observe the violence, children are usually aware that it is occurring.

They are alert to the obvious tension, fear and distress in their parents.

Their home, instead of being a place of security, is characterised by cruelty and fear.

The longer the situation goes on the harder it is to undo its damaging effects on children's development

Developmental Needs

There are certain developmental needs of children, which are widely recognised, addressing areas such as language, cognition, sexual identity, physical development, etc.

Four such developmental needs in particular are worth focusing on with regards to domestic violence.

1.      Safety and security.

Basic physical needs are obviously important to children and can be undermined in situations of domestic violence. Infants exposed to violence may face significant disruptions in basic sleep and feeding schedules. Financial constraints may be placed on the mother in being able to buy basic food, when she has no control or access to money; the need for shelter, particular at the time of separation, and more obviously protection from danger.

In many instances of domestic violence, children are at risk of becoming “unintentional” victims of violence as well as intentional victims of child abuse. There are many stories women tell of holding their children when they are attacked by their partners, or children intervening between their parents in attempts to protect their mother from the abuser.

Children need consistency and predictability in their lives. Often they are unable to rely on their basic needs being met. They also can never be sure what they will be facing in their homes, when there is likely to be an explosion of violence.

We all are aware of the need to set acceptable limits on behaviour for children. It is difficult to achieve this for children when there are no acceptable limits placed on their parent’s behaviour. It also common for children to have excessive limits placed on their behaviour in order to appease their father and attempt to prevent incidents from occurring. This means that children are restricted in their ability to try out new skills and make choices for themselves when their behaviour is being strictly controlled.

2.      Independence

This often means that children’s sense of self and self-control is undermined. The trauma in their lives causes great confusion and insecurity that leads to regressive behaviour, such as excessive clinging to adults and a fear of being left alone.

They often are unable to learn to take risks and experience success in a safe and secure setting. Thus children will often express insecurity and find it difficult to separate from their parents without distress.

3.      Self Worth

Children not only should be loved, but to feel loved. Often neither parent is fully available to the child. Both the abuser’s verbal and non-verbal messages are derogatory and lack positive messages. Because of the mother’s possible feelings of being overwhelmed, depression, and her own feelings of self worth, she finds it difficult to provide for her children’s emotional needs. In order to achieve a positive self-image a child requires an encouraging and positive environment in which they are valued. This is difficult in a home where domestic violence occurs.

4.      Sociability

Part of our socialisation of children is helping them to learn how to live cooperatively and make friendships. Rather than learning cooperation and positive communication skills, children learn that violence is an appropriate form of conflict resolution. They also can become very isolated – friendships are either not encouraged, or children are too embarrassed to have friends visits. They are also in a position of having to maintain the family secret at all costs and therefore feel unable to develop relationships with others who may find out this secret.

Family Violence Hurts Children too

Children exposed to domestic violence in the home may exhibit a range of internalising and externalising emotional and behavioural problems.


Nervousness, anxiety, worry

Feelings of fear, grief, shame, despair and distrust

Psychosomatic illness including headaches, asthma, abdominal complaints, stuttering



Poor self concept

A sense of powerlessness


Aggressive behaviours, such as destruction of property, disobedience in school, fighting, and attacking people.

“Acting out” behaviours

Over control” of others – being very bossy

Withdrawn behaviour

Passive behaviours



“Over responsible” behaviours – many children feel so responsible for their mother’s safety that they adjust their own lives to protect their mother at all times e.g. refuse to go to school and later receive the diagnosis of “school phobic”. Other children will go to school and develop somatic concerns so that they can return home to their mothers. Children also tend to assume some responsibility for the violence. Not only do they feel that it is their duty to protect their mother but also to defuse their father’s anger.


Problems concentrating/forgetfulness

Disturbed sleep/nightmares


Difficulties with peer relationships/social skills.

Learning that violence is a legitimate means for resolving conflict, or for obtaining control of a situation.


Decreased cognitive ability and poor academic performance. It is difficult for children to focus on what is happening in the classroom if they are worried about their mother, and if they have been kept awake all night by yelling and screaming.

Learning difficulties, which are also associated with school attendance.


Maternal Alienation


Some partners try to damage the relationship between a mum and her kids.

They may:

  • tell your kids you are a ‘bad’ mother
  • encourage them to ignore what you say
  • stop you from attending to your child
  •  be jealous of your pregnancy or when you are breastfeeding your baby

Family Violence can have a worse effect on kids than separation or divorce.

The Using Children Wheel has also useful information


How do children cope with family violence?


To maintain the family secret at all costs. In most cases, mothers will attempt to protect the children from the domestic violence and will not talk openly to the children about the violence that has occurred. Children learn that it is something that they must maintain silence about it. This makes it more difficult for children to voice their experiences and share their feelings about the violence.

Fear of expressing one’s feelings


Attempts to stop or prevent fighting, which can put them at risk of physical assault


Pseudo maturity


Problems concentrating/forgetfulness

Disturbed sleep/nightmares

Thoughts of revenge

To be accommodating

Postpone satisfying their own needs

Identifying with violent and abusive feelings

Feel that violence is their fault; or the fault of the non-abusing parent

They are responsible for stopping the violence

Family Violence can have a worse effect on kids than separation or divorce.


Strategies for assisting children who are victims of domestic violence

A warm and supportive relationship with you or another family member makes a positive difference for children.


Make sure the child knows the violence at home is not his or her fault.

bullet Give them lots of cuddles
    Tell them you love them - often

Reinforcing that they are not alone. Let them know that other children have also had similar experiences.


Encourage children to talk about anything that might be worrying them. Remember, children are NOT usually encouraged to talk openly about violence at home and no one is supposed to talk about it outside the family. Children's needs are often not recognised because of this.

bullet Show them respect and help them show respect to others

Help them make a safety plan which they can follow.


Encouraging the identification and expression of painful feelings


Promoting the understanding that family violence is as adult problem . Let them know it's not their role to protect you.


Encourage children to have a support network.


Consistently reinforcing that violence is unacceptable


Teaching non-violent problem solving techniques


Providing the opportunity to connect with positive male role models


Providing experiences for the development of healthy self-esteem


Encouraging and supporting the grieving over losses that result from leaving home, pets, friends, school and the trust and security they have yearned for and which their father has not provided


Assistance to deal with powerful mixed and confused feelings towards their father.


How mothers can help their children

The violence and abuse is not your responsibility. You are not to blame for your partner’s violence and abuse. You are not responsible for the effect that his abuse of you has on your children.

Whether your children have witnessed violent incidents or not, they will have been able to sense the atmosphere, so if you can, explain to them what is happening.

Children will often feel that they need to protect their mother from the violence. This is not their responsibility and it is important that you let the children know this.

Encourage your children to talk to you about how they are feeling.

It is important that your children know that feeling frightened, angry, confused or sad is normal in the situation.

It is often important for children to have another adult that they can trust and talk to. Perhaps a school counsellor or a trustworthy, sympathetic relative or friend can be found whom the children feel safe to talk to.

If you have already separated from your abusive partner seek counselling and support groups for yourself and your children. For counselling services for children see resources section see also resources section

For more information on Mothering and Domestic Violence go to: WEAVE

Myths about Paternal Alienation:Fact Sheet on Paternal Alienation

Pamphlet: "Family violence hurts kids too - Information for mothers" Pamphlet available from DVRC website

Bursting the Bubble

A 16 page full colour booklet for teenagers living with abuse in their families (including domestic violence, neglect, physical, sexual or emotional abuse). (from DVRC website )


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