The Insidious nature of non-physical Family Violence and its effect on children

We acknowledge that there males can also be victims of Family Violence however national statistics confirm that females are significantly more likely to be victims (According to research conducted by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 1 in 6 women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a cohabiting partner since age 15 compared to 1 in 16 men.

Oft-cited research from into domestic violence and specifically non-physical coercive and controlling abuse has revealed that in reality many perpetrators do not use physical violence. Whilst some may use minor assaultive violence (such as getting “up in the victim’s face”); the largest predictors of intimate partner homicide are in face emotionally abusive and controlling behaviours. Interestingly, it is the non-physical elements of abuse that cause victims most pain and trauma both in the short term and long-term.[1]

While traditionally domestic violence and child abuse were treated as separate issues; societal shifts in understanding the impact of domestic violence on children has realised that exposure to domestic violence in fact constitutes as “harm” to children[2] and is thus a child-protection issue also. In fact, section 4B of the Family Law Act 1975 specifically notes that a child is deemed to be exposed to family violence if they see or hear family violence or otherwise experience the effects.

The effects of non-violence family violence on Children

Undeniably, children who witness severe and ongoing parental conflict can have significant negative outcomes including externalising problems (such as behavioural difficulties, antisocial behaviour, conduct disorder); Internalising problems (such as low self-esteem, depression and anxiety); academic problems; physical health problems; and social and interpersonal relationship problems[3]

Additionally; younger children may also experience bed-wetting, nightmares and sleep disturbances and excessive screaming as babies[4].

The brain is at its most impressionable in early childhood in terms of being most developmentally receptive to environmental input via neural pathways. The younger the child is, the more likely the child is to suffer residual and pervasive problems after witnessing family violence[5]. Exposure to such experiences can alter a developing child’s brain in ways that can result in a range of inter-related psychological, emotional and social problems, including: depression and anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, problems with emotional regulation, substance abuse, relationship difficulties and physical problems including cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and stroke[6].

There is strong evidence that children who either witness such coercive and controlling abuse or are subjected to it themselves are more likely as adults to adhere to abusive attitudes and to perpetrate violence[7]

Interestingly, the effects of witnessing or experiencing violence are greater for males than females and studies have found that even where males witnessed spousal violence against their fathers’, they were still more likely to inflict violence as adults[8]. This has led to an understanding that being exposed to coercive and controlling behaviour leads to the “social learning” of intimate partner violence.

Perpetrators of coercive and controlling behaviour also characteristically impact children negatively by posing as role models that perpetuate violence, will often undermine the mother’s authority, retaliate against the mother for her efforts to protect the children, sowing divisions within the family and using the children as weapons against the mother[9].

When the children turn against the battered parent

Perpetrators of family violence (including non-physical abuse and coercive and controlling behaviour) often do children special favours after having abused the mother as a means of winning the children to his side[10]. They are also likely to instil in the children ideas about the mother not loving them as a means of isolating the mother.

When the mother attempts to retaliate in an effort to protect herself and the children from being exposed to family violence; she may find that the perpetrator may begin to threaten to or harm he children as a means of punishing the mother for having defended herself.

In fear of further provoking the father from harming the children; the mother may stop intervening on the children’s behalf when the perpetrator harms or exposes the children to family violence. Even in cases where the father does not perpetuate violence against the children; he may adopt subtler and nuanced forms of control like preventing the mother from picking up a crying infant or assisting a frightened child and barring the mother from providing basic physical, emotional or even medical care.[11] Over time, this can lead to the children forming the view that their mother does not care about them at all, or the obvious mistreatment of them by the father and in some cases can even lead to a finding by child protective services and the judicial officers that she has repeatedly “failed to protect” the children from harm. Without an in-depth understanding of the toxic family dynamics and the effects of experiencing recurrent family violence; it is easy to see how children can begin to take out their frustrations on the victim rather than perpetrator.

Family violence is inherently destructive to the mother and is one of the prime ways that undermines the mothers’ role and authority in the family[12]. Over time; the children growing up in an environment of contemptuous and aggressive behaviour towards their mother begin to accept this as the norm and sometimes can mimic the perpetuators conduct. Several studies confirm that children of battered women have increased rates of violence and disobedience towards their mother[13].

As a further means of exerting control and conditioning; the perpetuator may also use favouritism towards one child (often a boy) and bond with the child by encouraging a sense of superiority against women[14]. Girls growing up in family violence will often tend to internalise victimisation.

When the Child adopts the role of the Mediator

Children living in households where family violence prevails will often find themselves directly involved in the violence by acting as mediators and protecting their mothers and siblings.

Inevitably; this would lead to feelings of resentment especially as the burden of placating the perpetrator and maintaining a semblance of peace at home gets heavier as the frequency of family violence increases[15]. Taking on such a responsibility and role of mediator would naturally disrupt the child’s socialisation and education characterised by poor concentration, being absent from school (to deal with the matters at home) and generally exhibiting poor academic performance[16]. In such cases, children may also take out their frustrations on the victim parent rather than on the perpetrator.

Zahraa Algalele

[1] Jeffries, “In the Best Interests of the Abuser: Coercive Control, Child Custody Proceedings and the “Expert” Assessments That Guide Judicial Determinations” Griffith University, Brisbane 2016 file:///C:/Users/Admin/Downloads/laws-05-00014.pdf

[2] Anastasia Powell, and Suellen Murray. “Children and Domestic Violence: Constructing a Policy Problem in Australia and New Zealand.” Social and Legal Studies 17 (2008): 460

[3] Ibid 13

[4] Smith, “Children experiencing inter-parental coercive control” IRISS 2018

[5] Perry B. “Applying Principles of Neurodevelopment to Clinical Work with Maltreated and Traumatised Children” [2006] in Working with Traumatised Youth in Child Welfare, Ed. By Nancy Boyd Webb, Guildford Press NY 40.

[6] National Scientific Council on the Developing Child “Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing brain” [2005] Working Paper No 3, p 2

[7]Flood and Pease “The Factors Influencing Community Attitudes in Relation to Violence Against Women: A Critical Review of the Literature” Vic Health 2006

[8] Ibid

[9] Bancroft, L. (Winter 2002). The batterer as a parent. Synergy, 6(1), 6-8. (Newsletter of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges)

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] Jaffe, P., & Geffner, R. (1998). Child custody disputes and domestic violence: Critical issues for mental health, social service, and legal professionals

[14] Ibid 21

[15] Campo, “Children’s exposure to domestic and family violence” CFCA Paper

No. 36

Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, December 2015.

[16] Ibid