The devastating effects of family violence on women are well documented, but far less is known about the impact on children who experience – directly or indirectly – a parent being subjected to violence. An emerging body of research suggests that children who are exposed to violence at home may struggle with a range of emotional problems that ultimately impair their long-term development.
Safety and security
According to what psychologists call ‘attachment’ theory, children need to enjoy safe and secure relationships with their primary caregivers in order to grow and thrive. Children affected by family violence are less likely to enjoy this type of relationship – often because perpetrators of violence target the mother-child relationship – which means they’re unable to receive the benefits of comfort during and after incidents of family violence.
“A child’s caregiving relationship is meant to keep them safe and protect them as they grow and develop,” says clinical psychologist Olivia Powell MAPS*. “In children’s early years they have limited access to people and experiences outside their family relationship, so if children experience family violence they don’t feel safe and instead they experience their parents as frightening or frightened.
“A parent who is the victim of family violence is likely to be focused on survival (securing the physical safety of themselves and their children) and have their own family violence trauma impacts. This in turn impairs their ability to be consistently available to support their children around their emotional distress that is caused by the family violence.”
Psychologist Kathy Morrison MAPS* agrees: “If the parent who is supposed to protect you doesn’t comfort you when you’re scared and isn’t able to help you feel connected to the world, it has a huge impact.
“It very much impacts on a child’s developing brain, especially in very young children as their brains are developing in amazing ways, so something like trauma is going to impact on their ability to developmentally progress as a normal child of their age.”
Worryingly, children don’t need to experience or even directly witness family violence to be hurt. Waking up to violence, helping to care for a distressed parent and seeing injuries or property damage can affect a child’s worldview and long-term development.
Especially in early childhood, young minds soak up vast swathes of information about the world and this process guides their emotional functioning later in life. Children living with family violence grow up in an unpredictable environment dominated by tension, anxiety and fear, which affects what they learn and, importantly, how they interact with other people and manage their emotions.
“It’s within those really early years of life that our brains grow and develop rapidly – it’s when we learn to regulate our emotional state,” says Powell. “If you think about when a child is scared and a parent would usually come over and soothe them, if a child doesn’t have the benefit of being calmed during distressing events and those distressing events happen frequently, then right from the get-go they don’t develop the ability to regulate their emotions.”
As such, children affected by family violence often have trouble dealing with anger, fear and other strong negative emotions. They may lose their cool easily and are prone to meltdowns. Studies have found that children living with family violence exhibit more signs of aggressive behaviour such as bullying and are up to three times more likely to be involved in fighting.
Morrison says family violence also affects the development of children’s core beliefs, which guide how they see themselves and the world around them. “Core beliefs start at an early age based on our experiences and we hold onto them for the whole of the lifespan unless we get some help,” she says.
“Among children who experience family violence core beliefs can include, ‘I’m unlovable’, ‘I’m not safe’, ‘I’m not worthwhile’ and ‘I’m powerless’. If you hold these sort of beliefs from an early age, it’s going to impact on your choices throughout your life.”
Ultimately, family violence teaches children that people and relationships are scary. “Family violence changes the way a child’s brain grows and develops over time, which affects how children see themselves, perceive other people and experience the world,” says Powell.
“Children who experience family violence often lack a secure relational base and instead focus on survival, which impairs normal childhood development and means relationships become really difficult. They often see danger in any person they encounter.”
For professional help, please call KidsHelpline on 1800 55 1800 or 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732).
*Member of the Australian Psychological Society