Fear anxiety and dread: the lived experiences of children
For children, the impacts of repeated abuse and living with domestic and family violence are profound and traumatic. They do not become used to violence; they adapt.
When there's violence in the home, children are always affected, even if they are asleep or not in the room when the violence occurs. And when violence occurs, the child is more likely to experience physical and sexual abuse and all forms of neglect.
It’s your job to see and understand the breadth and depth of that violence and how it shapes the child’s inner and outer worlds.
‘I used to hide under my bed all week. I used to make a little place out of it with all my teddies. He … always used to buy teddies for us… and I used to store them under my bed and any time I felt sad or when they were screaming or roaring down in the kitchen …’ A young child speaks about how she coped.
(Buckley, Holt and Whelan, 2007).
How violence looks through a child’s eyes
- I always feel scared about what he will say or do. I can never relax.
- I’ve heard Mum being yelled at, called names and put down. He calls me names too.
- We’re not allowed to see or visit anyone.
- I hear him bossing Mum around, he bosses us around too. There are lots of rules.
- I feel sick in my tummy and I can’t sleep.
- I’ve seen Mum being hurt, punched, kicked, hit and hair pulled.
- I’ve tried to stop him, by standing between them.
- I’ve seen Mum crying, with bruises on her body.
- He gives me looks that make me feel scared.
- Things in my home are broken and thrown around.
- I need to look after my sister so she doesn’t get hurt.
- I’m not allowed to speak to anyone about it, so I don’t speak very much to anyone.
- We don’t have enough money to buy food, to buy clothes or to get to a safe place.
- He gets mad if Mum gives me attention.
- I’m too embarrassed to have my friends over in case something happens.
- I’ve been told it’s my fault; I feel guilty and ashamed.
- I feel confused; sometimes he’s nice and we have fun.
- I’m worried I might be like him when I grow up.
- I don’t think I want to have a partner when I grow up. I’m scared they will hurt me.
- I feel like I can’t join in when my friends talk about nice things they do with their families.
- He says he’s going to kill our dog.
How violence hurts a child
The perpetrator is likely to use different types of violence and will use tactics of power and control. These tactics may be as subtle as a threatening look, the imposing of rules, a degrading comment or a whispered threat.
These tactics are often used against children and mothers alike. Even when they are directed only at mothers, the child can see and sense them, as well as their mother’s response. These dynamics are inescapable for the child. They become highly attuned to them.
Even if they have not heard or seen a physical assault against their mother, children often experience the father as a menacing presence, colouring all aspects of family life. The child may try to predict the father’s moods and actions and try to protect themselves, their mother, siblings and their pets. Often there is little time left for play, relaxation or dreaming about their future.
Take a look at the Children’s Domestic Violence Wheel.
The Duluth Power and Control Wheel and the Clare Murphy adaption of the Power and Control Wheel both illustrate a variety of tactics used to create coercive control over an intimate partner.
Both are useful when you are outlining and assessing patterns of violent and non-violent harm with victims. You can learn more about this at Intimidation—Understanding the Power and Control Wheel.
It can impact on relationships
Children who are in this situation are required to not only manage the immediate consequences of the violence, but also attempt to make sense of how a parent or family member can alternate between caring acts and violent acts.
The effects of being in this situation may impact on the child’s emotional and physical wellbeing; their attachment with their non-offending parent; and their development, including social, physical and psychological development (Morris, Humphreys, & Hegarty, 2015).
A child’s relationships may be harmed by violence in many ways.
With their mothers: The perpetrator may intentionally try to undermine the relationship between a mother and her child. Some mothers may, in attempting to protect their children, separate themselves emotionally and physically from the child. This separation may also be an attempt to protect children from violence. The bond between mothers and their children can also suffer because a woman is exhausted from the stress and fear of abuse and because of self-esteem issues.
With their fathers: Children can feel very confused about their relationship with the man using violence. They may struggle to reconcile loving him, hating him and fearing him all at the same time.
With friends and others: A child may have restricted or no contact with family and community members. This distance often happens because the perpetrator deliberately limits who the family sees, to stop them seeking support. Children also often report feeling different from other children. They often speak of their fear of being bullied if other kids find out about the violence. And when they do have friends, they are too embarrassed to invite them over to their home where their friends may see or be subject to abuse also.
It can change their behaviour
The National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service says a child may:
- act out, overreact, be hostile, impulsive, or show aggression or defiance
- withdraw, dissociate or run away
- (in the case of older kids) use alcohol and other drugs as a way of coping with the trauma of experiencing violence in the home.
Children may also:
- bully other children
- be more accepting of or willing to excuse the use of violence against mothers
- use violence against peers or friends
- experience violence from friends or peers.
For more on the impacts of domestic violence on children, refer to Domestic and Family violence and children.
If workers understand changes in the brain of children who experience violence, it helps them to understand behaviours that may otherwise be incorrectly seen as ‘defiant’, ‘naughty’, 'unmanageable’, ‘not paying attention’ or even ‘spaced-out’. Despite major impacts on children’s brain patterns, the brain is always changing and evolving according to what it is learning. The neuron pathways in the brain can be changed over time, through awareness, practice and patience.
Their development may be impacted
Domestic violence can impact on a child's physical, mental, emotional and social development, and complex trauma caused by chronic violence can inhibit brain development. You may find a child acts younger than their age. This can be because of developmental delays or it may be a way for the child to feel safe and secure through psychological escape.
To have a clear understanding of how a child can be affected by exposure to domestic and family violence, it is important to be familiar with various developmental stages. Are you familiar with these? If not, this may be a helpful article to read:
Domestic violence as a form of child abuse: Identification and prevention.
Their emotions are affected
Children often feel lonely, scared, anxious and ashamed. They are likely to worry greatly about their mother’s safety, and worry about keeping their siblings and pets safe, or that their siblings or pets may be hurt. At times they may feel despair. They may find it difficult to relax, settle or feel at ease. Children can also feel immense pressure to keep the violence a secret.
A child may also have difficulty regulating their emotions, and may learn that violence is an appropriate way to respond to uncomfortable emotions or problems. These emotional experiences can stay with a child right through to adulthood.
Their learning may suffer
A child may struggle to concentrate if they are always alert to the possibility of danger. Being tired because they have trouble sleeping can also make focusing difficult. Changing schools regularly due to a lack of stable housing or regularly missing school because of disruptions at home can also get in the way of a child's learning.
Their thoughts are influenced
Children living with domestic violence often have low self-esteem. It’s common for them to believe they are worthless and to blame themselves for the violence.
A child may think badly of others too. Their life experiences may make them think others are untrustworthy and violent. And they may develop biased perceptions of gender, assuming that father is superior to the mother, more powerful or entitled, and that fathers have the right to abuse and control mothers. They may think violence is a normal part of intimate relationships.
Physical health may deteriorate
Physical symptoms such as sleep disturbances including nightmares, insomnia and bedwetting are not unusual. Children may also experience stress-related symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches or immune system-related illnesses. They may also be physically hurt during an assault against their mother or sibling.
Childhood trauma is not something you ‘get over’ as you grow up. The repeated stress of abuse and neglect and of parents struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues has real, tangible effects on the development of the brain.
Have you considered how this can unfold across a lifetime? Dr Nadine Burke, in How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime (2014 Ted Talk) makes a passionate plea for those involved in paediatric medicine to confront the prevention and treatment of trauma head-on.
Babies living with a man’s violence are at particular risk
Babies born into domestic violence during pregnancy or after birth may experience:
- harm in the womb due to violence aimed at the mother’s abdomen
- exposure in the womb to alcohol and other drugs used by their mother as a response to the violence
- a higher risk of premature birth
- low birth weight
- a lack of attention and care as the mother distances herself from the baby so as not to be seen as favouring the child over the father or partner
- a mother who is vulnerable to post-natal depression
- difficulties with bonding and attachment
- a learned fear response and hyper vigilance to loud noises, to the man entering the room, to his voice or to sudden movements
- negative impacts on brain functioning due to being in a constant state of alert and stress or having their needs neglected
- the negative attention of the man, which can lead to the physical abuse of the child.
Homelessness is a major problem
Domestic violence is the leading cause of homelessness for children in Australia.
Many children made homeless from domestic violence are not homeless in the traditional sense, but are made ‘homeless at home’. While the child has a house, the immediate or gradual threat of danger makes the home unliveable.
Many children will cycle in and out of homelessness as their mothers leave and return home or live with new partners.
Children who relocate to a refuge with their mothers are likely to find themselves living in a communal situation with other families experiencing trauma. Although refuges can provide physical safety, many children find the move to a refuge disruptive and chaotic. During this time, many children feel the need to keep secrets about where they are living.
How a man who uses violence may use children
A father who uses violence may:
- blame the child for the violence
- encourage the child to abuse their mother
- threaten violence against the children to scare or hurt their mother
- threaten violence against family pets
- talk badly about the child’s mother
- put the child’s mother through family court proceedings to get custody or access to the children, particularly when they’ve had minimal involvement in parenting in the past
- hold the child hostage or abduct them
- hurt or kill the child as a vengeful and violent act against their mother.
How young people may think or feel when responding to domestic violence
As children become young adults, their feelings about the violence can become more complicated. Now they are able to do much more for themselves, feelings of responsibility and blame can intensify.
Young people's social lives can also be significantly affected, having an influence on their attitudes to both their mother and the man using violence. Depression, anxiety and anger are also common.
A young person may carry ideas about their self-worth or the normalisation of violence over into their own relationships. Read more about this in Healthy intimate relationships.
|What they're feeling||What they're thinking|
|Sadness||I feel so alone and unlovable.|
|Confusion||Why doesn’t mum just leave him?|
|Concern||What if I’m next?|
|Frustration||I have problems too, but no one seems to care.|
|Isolation||I can’t talk to anyone.|
|Guilt||It’s my fault.|
|Fear||He’s going to kill mum one day.|
|Anxiety||Will this be a part of my relationships, too?|
|Embarrassment||Other families aren’t like this, I hope no one ever finds out.|
|Resignation||This will never stop.|
|Vengeful||I wish he would die.|
|Worthlessness||If they cared about me, the violence would stop.|
|Helplessness||I can’t help my mum.|
|Responsibility||I have to try to make this stop.|
|Anger||Why does mum let him abuse her? Why does he do this?|
|Worry||I don’t want to move house or change schools, so I hope mum just puts up with it|
|Panic||How will we afford anything if mum leaves him?|
More than a witness: noticing a child's experiencesNext
Opening our eyes to ways children and young people cope with violence
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