Family violence and children/adolescents
Family violence and children/adolescents
In your role, you may come across children and adolescents who are exposed to family violence. It’s important to recognise that they are impacted, even if they are not the direct target of the violence.
Family Violence Protection Act 2008
According to Victoria’s Family Violence Protection Act 2008, family violence includes behaviour by a person that causes a child to hear, witness or otherwise be exposed to the effects of violence after the violence has occurred.
"Witnessing” family violence includes when a child or adolescent is exposed to:
- Seeing the consequences of the violence (bruising, distress, damaged property etc.)
- Witnessing their mother/father lying about how the mothers injuries occurred
- Sensing their mother’s fear
- Living with the effects of violence on the health and parenting capacity of their mother
- Having favourite belongings or pets destroyed.
Impacts on children and adolescents
A recent Australian study found that close to 750,000 women had children in their care when their experienced violence by a former partner they lived with. More than three-quarters of these women said their children saw or heard the violence. According to 2016 crime statistics, children are present in one-third of family violence cases reported to police.
Being exposed to or witnessing family violence can have a traumatic impact on children. It is a form of child abuse that creates trauma, disrupts healthy attachment, impedes childhood development and compromises the development of core neural networks.
These impacts are compounded by detrimental effects on parenting and on the mother-child bond. Family violence can be all-consuming, leaving the mother with little capacity or resilience to nurture her child’s emotional needs and development. She may feel a diminished sense of self as an effective parent. The father may also deliberately attempt to break down the mother-child relationship through tactics like telling the child that her/his parents would be together, if not for the mother.
Young people who have witnessed/experienced family violence may have complex needs related to mental health and behaviour management. They may exhibit depression, anxiety, violent outbursts, low academic achievement, eating disorders, absconding from home/school, risk taking behaviours, and substance abuse. Young people may also be using or experiencing violence in their own intimate relationships.
In the young person’s relationship with their parents, there may be conflict, abuse of parents and withdrawal from family. They may take on the role of caregiver/protector and may also try to step in to protect a parent, increasing their risk of physical harm.
Indicators that a child/adolescent may be exposed to family violence
Warning signs that family violence is occurring for children/adolescents can be hard to recognise because they’re similar to the warning signs of many other issues unrelated to family violence. Children/adolescents may show all of these signs, or only a few of them and the common signs will depend on their age. When it comes to indicators in children, they really need to be considered in the context of any warning signs the mother might be presenting.
Indicators in children
- Regression (toddlers)
- Complaints about illness (stomach ache or headache)
- Trouble concentrating on tasks
- High levels of general distress or inability to self soothe/regulate
- Difficulty with friendships
- Acting out (the ‘naughty’ child)
- Withdrawing (the ‘quiet’ child)
- ‘Mean’ or violent behaviour towards peers or family members
- Doesn’t want to go home
- Inability to nap/sleep disturbances
- Watchful, seems on ‘alert’
Indicators in adolescents
- Acting out or withdrawing
- Skipping school
- Substance abuse
- Not seeing friends
- Having difficulty concentrating and grades dropping
If you notice these warning signs but family violence has not been disclosed, contact the Child FIRST referral and support team in your region for guidance on what steps to take.
If you are concerned that a child is at risk of harm or they are being physically or sexually abused, contact the Child Protection Crisis Line statewide free call (24 hours) on 13 12 78.
Responding to disclosures
If a child, adolescent or parent discloses to you that family violence is occurring, there are ways you can respond that will make them feel supported and increase their chance of seeking help. Below are some practical suggestions of what to do and what not do to.
What to do in responding to a disclosure:
- Actively listen, without interruption
- Show that you believe what they are saying to you
- Affirm that they have done the right thing in talking about their experience
- When responding to disclosures from children and young people, let them know how courageous they have been in coming forward and highlight their strengths
- Take their fears or concerns seriously
- Emphasise that they are not to blame for their experience
- When responding to disclosures from children or young people, be clear about your legal responsibilities, including the possibility that you might have to share some of this information with other people if you believe that there is an immediate risk of harm
- Provide information about what you will do in response to the disclosure and that you will continue to support them in your role
- Provide information about support services (further information in the referrals section below).
What not do in responding to a disclosure:
- Talk about your own experiences of violence
- Ask a lot of questions to try and find out details
- Judge or criticise their choices
- Make comments that imply there’s something the victim/survivor could have done to ‘protect themselves’
- Promise the victim/survivor you will keep their confidence (if you’re not able to do so as a mandated professional)
- Get angry or frustrated at the victim/survivor or their experience
- Try to ‘fix’ the problem for them
- Tell them what to do
- Talk negatively about the perpetrator
- Try and force them to disclose information – let them guide what they tell you
It’s important to recognise the limitations of your role when responding to disclosures.
The most important thing you can do is believe the experiences of the child and/or their mother and support them to seek assistance from services that are specialised in responding family violence and/or working with children and young people. Unless you are a therapist, it is not your role to provide counselling or other therapeutic support.
Specialist family violence services
These services will provide support to the mother experiencing violence. You can also contact them services for advice on how to respond. Professionals in these services are skilled at undertaking comprehensive risk assessments, working with complex needs and using risk management strategies to reduce the level of risk for the victim/survivor and support them to manage their safety. See the section on referring clients to specialist support for further information.
You may have a duty of care to make a report to Child Protection if you believe there is a serious impact on the child/young person’s immediate safety, stability or development, or that the situation is persistent and entrenched and is likely to have a serious impact on the child/young person’s development.
If you believe that the impact on the child/young person is low to moderate or that their immediate safety is not compromised, then a referral to Child FIRST may be appropriate to connect children, young people and their families to the support services they need.
If you have concerns about a child/young person and need guidance in deciding whether to make a report to Child Protection or refer to a Child FIRST service, you can contact the Child FIRST referral and support team in your region.
Research indicates that children exposed to family violence are at greater risk of child sexual abuse. If you have a reasonable belief that sexual assault has been committed by an adult against a child, you are mandated to disclose this belief to police. Failure to disclose this is a criminal offence.
Anyone working in services such as education, health, police, law, housing, drug and alcohol, welfare, social services or disability may need professional training in order to know how to identify and respond to family violence as appropriate for their role.
While our site provides useful introductory information and resources, you will need a more in-depth understanding of family violence in practice by participating in specialised training.
Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria (DVRCV) is Victoria’s only Registered Training Organisation that specialises in family violence, and delivers expert, evidence-based training across a wide number of topics, tailored to individual audiences.
As a starting point, DVRCV’s course on identifying family violence and risk assessment is recommended. This introductory course is for workers with no specific family violence work experience. It covers the effects of family violence on adults and children, and provides an overview of legal responses, resources and referrals.
If your role is to undertake risk assessment with children/adults, you may also need to undertake training in the Common Risk Assessment Framework (CRAF).
Other family violence training around the state can be found on The Lookout training and events page.