Family violence has significant consequences for infants, children, and young people
Children and young people can be both directly and indirectly affected by family violence. It’s important to recognise children and young people as victim survivors in their own right, not extensions of their parents, or ‘secondary victims’ of family violence (FSV, 2020).
Perpetrators may subject a child to threatening, coercive and controlling behaviours including physical, sexual or emotional abuse. Children may also be used by perpetrators in tactics of control directed at their parent, carer or family member. Perpetrators often use various harmful tactics to deliberately undermine, manipulate and damage the mother-child relationship[i].
Filicides (where a parent or step-parent kills a child) are the second most common form of family violence homicide, following intimate partner homicide (AIHW, 2019).
Family violence also occurs when a child or young person hears, witnesses or is exposed to the effects of the violence.[ii] For example, if a child senses their parent’s fear or lives with the impacts of violence on a family member’s health.
Family violence impacts infant, children and young people in many different ways
While children can be incredibly resilient, the impacts of family violence can have long-term consequences for their friendships and relationships, as well as participation in social and civic life.[i] Evidence demonstrates that family violence can have a lasting and significant impact on infants (including in utero), children, and young people. They can be impacted whether they are directly targeted with abuse, they witness abuse or violence towards their parent or carer, or they are exposed to the effects of family violence in their environment (FSV, 2020).
Direct and indirect exposure to family violence can have serious, long-term impacts on the physical, spiritual, psychological, developmental, emotional safety and wellbeing of children and young people.[ii]
Family violence negatively and cumulatively impacts children’s:
- physical, neurological and emotional development
- sense of security and attachment in relationships
- mental health and cognitive and behavioural functioning
- ability to cope and adapt to different situations and contexts (FSV, 2020);
Children growing up in environments where family violence occurs may also be more likely to require additional support to meet milestones, regulate their emotions and behaviours, engage in education and sustain positive relationships with others.[iii] Related to this is the significant impact of family violence on the development of positive attachment and bonds between children and their parents or carers.[iv]
Family violence risk and safety considerations
- Exposure to family violence: Exposure to family violence impacts on children’s developmental, social and emotional wellbeing, and these harms are cumulative. Whether the exposure to family violence is direct (including a perpetrators violence and control towards the child or young person) or indirect (including the effects on the physical environment or violence towards another family member), they are victim survivors in their own right.
- Change in behaviour not explained by other causes: A change in the behaviour of a child or young person that cannot be explained by other causes may indicate the presence of family violence or an escalation of risk of harm from family violence. Children and young people may not always verbally communicate their experiences. A change to behaviour may occur to manage their own risk and safety. This may include responses such as becoming hypervigilant, aggressive, withdrawn or overly compliant.
- Sexualised behaviours towards a child by the perpetrator: There is a strong link between family violence and sexual abuse. Perpetrators who demonstrate sexualised behaviours towards a child are more likely to use other forms of violence.
- Intervention in family violence: Children and young people are at increased risk of harm from the perpetrator if they engage in protective behaviours or acts of resistance. This can include actions to defend or safeguard other family members. The risk of harm may be higher if the perpetrator is targeting certain children, particularly non biological children in the family.
- Perpetrator’s use of controlling behaviours: A perpetrator may express ownership over family members as an articulation of control. Examples of controlling behaviours impacting children and young people include the perpetrator:
- limiting children and young people’s cultural and community connection or access to appropriate services or education and support
- controlling their access to money or other financial abuse, and
- determining when they can see friends and family
- asking children and young people to monitor and report on other family member’s actions and movements
- using behaviour that indicates non return of a child or young person. This includes failure to adhere to, or the undermining of, agreed child care arrangements (or threatening to do so), threatened or actual removal of children overseas, returning children late.
- undermining the child–care giver relationship. This can include tactics to undermine capacity and confidence in parenting and manipulating the child’s perception of the adult victim survivor.
- Young LGBTIQA+ people are at increased risk of violence, emotional abuse and homo/bi/intersex/transphobia from family of origin. This can lead to isolation, homelessness and financial stress.
The signs an infant, child or young person may be experiencing violence risk.
- Being very passive and compliant
- “Acting out” and being non-compliant
- Showing wariness or distrust of adults
- Demonstrating fear of particular people and places
- Poor sleep patterns and emotional dysregulation
- Becoming fearful when other children cry or shout
- Feeling shocked and/or having a response to loud/unfamiliar noises, people’s presence, or actions
- Developmental regression (i.e. reverting to bed-wetting)
- Bruises, burns, sprains, dislocations, bites, cuts
- Fractured bones, especially in an infant where a fracture is unlikely to have occurred accidentally
- Being poisoned
- Internal injuries
- Wearing long-sleeved clothes on hot days to hide bruising or other injury
- Being excessively friendly to strangers
- Being excessively clingy to certain adults
- A strong desire to please or receive validation from certain adults
- Excessive washing or bathing
- Unclear boundaries and understanding of relationships between adults and children
- Excessive sexualised behaviour/advanced sexual knowledge
- Violence or sexualised behaviour to other children.
Keep in mind these signs will vary depending on the child’s age, stage of development and unique lived experiences. For a more comprehensive list of observable signs across age ranges see the MARAM Practice Guides for more information.
- Children and young people must be viewed as victim survivors in their own right, with their own unique experiences, risks, protective factors and strengths. Each child you support requires their own risk assessment, safety plan and case plan goals.[i]
- Your response to a child or young person, including the language you use to communicate or the activities you do together to build rapport, should always be trauma-informed and tailored to their age and stage of development.
- Centre the child or young person’s experiences by engaging with them directly, wherever appropriate. If not possible, interact with the parent/carer who is not using violence or professionals in the child’s life (e.g. teachers) to collect information about their experiences.[ii]
- Promote children’s participation in risk assessment, management, safe planning, and decisions that affect their lives, wherever safe and reasonable to do so[iii].
- Ensure your service environment is welcoming, safe, inclusive to children of all abilities and stages of development.
- Partner with the non-violent parent and family members to support rebuilding and repair to relationships impacted by trauma and violence.[iv]
- Recognise that family violence is a form of structural oppression. Children and young people from refugee/migrant communities, who are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders, living with disability, and/or who are LGBTIQA+ may face additional and intersecting risks and barriers to safety. An intersectional lens is also important within child centred practice to recognise how the cumulative harms and impacts of family violence on children is a form of structural oppression against the most vulnerable members of society.[v]
- Collaborate with other services, as appropriate, to address the child’s needs. These may include Child FIRST, family services, Aboriginal community-controlled organisations, allied health services, multicultural and ethno-specific services, child protection, maternal and child health services, schools, child-care services, youth services, and therapeutic services for children and young people.[vi] Apply the Family Violence Information Sharing Scheme to proactively share and request relevant information with services.
- It is essential that practitioners and services understand and implement their responsibilities as described in the Child Safe Standards, the Reportable Conduct Scheme, the Child Information Sharing Scheme, and the specific child-focused risk assessment and risk management guidance and tools provided in the MARAM Framework.[vii]
See the MARAM Practice Guides and the Code of Practice for Specialist Family Violence Services for further guidance.
Tools and resources
Under the Family Violence Risk and Management Framework (MARAM) many Victorian workforces have prescribed roles and responsibilities in recognising and responding to children and young people experiencing family violence. The MARAM Practice Guides provide more information and detailed practice guidance. This resource provides supplementary information to prompt further consideration and support your development as a family violence professional.
Morgan Cataldo and the Y-Change team of Lived Experience Consultants (2020) ‘We are the ones you left behind: Centering young people with a lived experience in family violence service system reform.’ Article originally published in the September 2020 edition of Parity Magazine.
- [i] Family Safety Victoria (2021). MARAM Practice Guides: Foundation Knowledge Guide. Melbourne, Vic: State of Victoria, page 62.
- [ii] Family Violence Protection Act 2008 (Vic)
- [i] Campo, M. (2015). Children’s exposure to domestic and family violence: Key issues and responses. Melbourne, Vic: Child Family Community Australia information exchange, Australian Institute of Family Studies; Taylor, A. (2019). Impact of the experience of domestic and family violence on children. Mackay, Qld: Queensland Centre for Domestic and Family Violence Research, CQ University; Kaspiew, R., Horsfall, B., Qu, L., Nicholson, J. M., Humphreys, C., Diemer, K., … Dunstan, J. (2017). Domestic and family violence and parenting: Mixed method insights into impact and support needs: Final report. Sydney: ANROWS.[ii] Family Safety Victoria (2021). MARAM Practice Guides: Foundation Knowledge Guide. Melbourne, Vic: State of Victoria, page 68.[iii] Australian Childhood Foundation (2013); Ibid Campo, M. (2015); Taylor, A. (2019).[iv] Ibid Campo, M. (2015); Kaspiew, R. et al. (2017); Katz, E. (2019).
- [i] Family Safety Victoria (2021). MARAM Practice Guides: Foundation Knowledge Guide. Melbourne, Vic: State of Victoria, page 66.[ii] Family Safety Victoria (2021). MARAM Practice Guides: Foundation Knowledge Guide. Melbourne, Vic: State of Victoria, page 69.[iii] Family Safety Victoria (2021). MARAM Practice Guides: Foundation Knowledge Guide. Melbourne, Vic: State of Victoria, page 69.[iv] Family Safety Victoria (2021). MARAM Practice Guides: Foundation Knowledge Guide. Melbourne, Vic: State of Victoria, page 69.[v] Domestic Violence Victoria (2020). Code of Practice: Principles and Standards for Specialist Family Violence Services for Victim-Survivors. 2nd Edition. Melbourne: DV Vic, page 46.[vi] Domestic Violence Victoria (2020). Code of Practice: Principles and Standards for Specialist Family Violence Services for Victim-Survivors. 2nd Edition. Melbourne: DV Vic.[vii] Domestic Violence Victoria (2020). Code of Practice: Principles and Standards for Specialist Family Violence Services for Victim-Survivors. 2nd Edition. Melbourne: DV Vic, page 47.