Kids Health Info

Family violence – effects on children’s health

  • Important note: please consider safety when giving out this fact sheet and further risk of violence if a printout is found. Ask: “Is it safe to have this document with you?”

    Family violence affects many Australian families. Experiencing family violence is traumatic for babies, children and young people. It can have long-term effects on their health and wellbeing. 

    There are many ways to help children who are affected by family violence and there are many support services available to help. You don’t have to get through this alone.

    Please remember that if you are experiencing family violence, it is not your fault. The person using violence is responsible for their behaviour and for any harm this may cause to family members, including your child.

    No one should feel unsafe in their home or family. Family violence is not OK.

    What is family violence? 

    Family violence is behaviour that controls or threatens someone. It can involve: 

    • physical abuse or threats of physical harm 
    • sexual violence (including forcing or pressuring someone to become pregnant) 
    • emotional or psychological abuse (including name calling, putting someone down, denying their feelings, undermining their relationship with their child and making them feel like a bad parent) 
    • financial abuse (controlling someone’s access to money)
    • isolating someone (e.g. by stopping them from seeing their family and friends)
    • cyber abuse (controlling, harassing or constantly checking up on someone using social media, internet, emails, messaging or texting).

    Family violence tends to be a pattern of behaviour that builds over time, and experiences can vary between family members. People of any age, income, sexuality, social background, culture or religion can be affected by family violence. Family violence can involve partners, ex-partners, parents, siblings, carers and other extended family members.

    How family violence can impact your child’s health

    Children living in a home where there is family violence will experience the violence in many different ways. Sometimes children can be injured, verbally abused or intimidated. They may see or hear fighting, crying, yelling, loud noises or someone being hurt. 

    It is very harmful for a child to watch a parent deliberately hurt another parent, whether it is physical hurt, hurting their feelings, or hurting them by controlling their independence.

    Even when children do not actually see or hear the abuse, living with family violence can lead to fear and stress, threatening their health and wellbeing. They may notice the impacts on the parent who has been abused, and may feel unsafe due to the unpredictable environment at home. 

    Children and young people may be unable or unwilling to tell you how they are feeling, and may not have the language to express their concerns. Sometimes they tell us how they’re feeling through the way they act or the way their body reacts. Physical pain or feeling sick can be a way that the body expresses what words can’t. Headaches, stomach aches and stress reactions such as rashes or sleep changes are common. Babies and toddlers may show great distress at being separated from their primary caregiver.

    The following signs may indicate that your child needs support due to the impacts of family violence. It is important to be aware that these signs may also be due to other reasons and if you are worried, take them to see your GP or Maternal and Child Health Nurse. It’s a good idea to have a trusted GP who knows you and your child – they can work with you to find out the cause of your child’s symptoms.

    Babies and toddlers:

    • being unsettled (e.g. excessive crying, sleep disturbances, feeding problems) and difficult to soothe
    • easily startled, very anxious, clingy
    • emotionally withdrawn (e.g. reduced interest in familiar people, toys and activities) 
    • signs of aggression when playing
    • delayed developmental milestones (e.g. language development).

    School-age children: 

    • difficulties controlling their emotions (e.g. mood swings, aggressive, anxious) 
    • poor concentration and not doing well at school, refusing to go to school 
    • being withdrawn and not playing with friends 
    • returning to behaviours they had when they were younger (e.g. bedwetting, separation anxiety, not wanting to go to sleep). 

    Adolescents: 

    • eating disorders, self-harm, suicidal thoughts or attempts
    • depression or anxiety
    • skipping school, decreased focus or behavioural changes at school or out-of-school activities 
    • risk-taking behaviours (e.g. using drugs or alcohol, unprotected sex) 
    • increase in symptoms related to chronic health conditions (e.g. asthma, diabetes).

    How to help children and young people affected by family violence

    With the right support and safety, children and young people can heal and recover from the impacts of family violence. There are many ways to help your child.

    Don’t forget to look after yourself. Your wellbeing is important and you will be better placed to care for your child if you look after your own needs too.

    Listen, talk and spend time with your child 

    Depending on the age of your child, talk with them about what’s going on. It’s normal for children not to tell parents how much they know about the violence, because they don’t want to hurt or worry you. But if they don’t talk to anyone, children often feel like they are to blame or that they caused the violence. 

    Give your child the opportunity to ask questions and share their understanding of what has happened to your family. Allow them to express their feelings, and acknowledge that they may have mixed feelings. It is an enormous task for a child to make sense of what’s happening at home. It can be helpful name the events and feelings surrounding the exposure to violence.

    Reassure your child that the violent behaviour was not their fault and they are never to blame. It is important for children to know they are loved, they deserve a safe home and they are allowed to talk about things that worry them at home. 

    The person who is using violence may try to undermine or attack your bond with your child. But spending time with and talking to your child will help maintain a strong bond. 

    Sometimes your child may prefer to talk to another supportive adult, such as an aunt, uncle, grandparent or family friend. They may also like to talk with a teacher, school counsellor, GP or an online or phone support service like Kids Helpline (1800 551 800). Reassure your child that it is safe for them to tell a supportive adult about their home situation. Some children might be fearful of being taken away from their parents if they tell anyone.

    Help your child feel safe

    Make sure your child knows it is not their responsibility to try and stop the violence and it’s not their role to protect you. Children often feel responsible for keeping their parent and siblings safe. 

    Talk to your child about things they would like to do to help them feel safe when things get scary at home. For example, they could go to their room and hug a comfort toy, call grandma, or go to their room and listen to their favourite music. 

    It is always a good idea to teach your child how to call 000 in an emergency and how to give your address. 

    There are family violence support services that can help you prepare a safety plan that will help you keep your child safe when violence escalates. See below for contact details.

    Building resilience in children and young people 

    Resilience is the ability to cope with difficult situations. Building your child’s resilience will help them to be healthier and more hopeful (however, while the violence is occurring this can be difficult). Helping a child become more resilient involves:

    • Maintaining social connections – give your child opportunities to spend time with caring family and friends and doing activities they enjoy, such as hobbies and sports.
    • Help them to think positively – help them remember and focus on the good things in their life, such as the things they are good at and the things they like to do.
    • Self-respect – help your child understand that they matter and should be treated with respect by other people (e.g. they can tell a classmate “Stop it, I don’t like it” if they are being hurt). Also talk to them about respecting other people, being kind and that violence is never OK.
    • Allow them some independence and control – as appropriate for their age and developmental stage, let them contribute to decisions that affect them.  

    You don’t need to do all of this alone. You can seek support for helping build your child’s resilience from a family violence support service or talk to your GP about other services that can help. 

    Key points to remember 

    • Family violence is traumatic for children and can affect their health and wellbeing. 
    • If you are experiencing family violence, it is not your fault and you are not to blame.
    • With the right support, your child can recover from the effects of family violence. There are many support services to help.
    • Talk to your child about what’s happening and help them to feel safe. 
    • Building your child’s resilience will help them be healthier and more hopeful.

    Family violence support services

    If you or your children are in immediate danger, call police on 000.

    The following agencies can help you think about ways to keep yourself and your child safe, including taking out legal orders and letting child care or school know who can collect your child: 

    • 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault and family violence counselling service, available online and on the phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
    • Safe Steps Family Violence Response Centre (1800 015 188) – crisis service providing support and access to refuges for women and children, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

    Children and young people aged five to 25 can contact: 

    • Kids Helpline (1800 551800) – a private and confidential phone and online counselling service available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

    Men’s services include:

    • No to Violence (1300 766 491) – national referral service working with men to end family violence, available in Victoria weekdays 8 am – 9 pm, weekends 9 am – 5 pm.
    • MensLine (1300 789 978) – telephone and online counselling service specialising in family and relationship concerns, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

    For more information

    Common questions our doctors are asked

    If I seek help for the family violence, will my children be taken away?

    Protecting children is a shared responsibility and sometimes the person using violence can be so scary that you or your family might need some help from services. Specialist family violence services can work with you to keep the children safe. Sometimes Child Protection might also become involved. In rare cases, children may be placed in out of home care (often with another family member) while the risk to their safety is high.

    Even though my partner is violent with me, he’s good with the children. Isn’t it important for the children to have a good relationship with their dad?

    A man is not being a good father or role model if he abuses anyone, especially their child's mother. Even if he is caring or affectionate towards the children, it doesn't make up for the damage he is doing hurting you. Seeing you being controlled or hurt causes harm to your children, as does living in an environment of fear or uncertainty.

    My child is very angry. How can I help her manage her feelings and behaviour?

    For children who have been exposed to family violence, it is a normal response to be scared and angry. Your child may need you to help them understand the new and overwhelming feelings they are experiencing. You can help your child by being with her when she is overwhelmed with angry feelings, staying calm, being kind, talking things through and naming the feelings. It is also important to let her know that while it’s OK to feel angry, it’s not OK to hurt anyone because you’re angry.


    Developed by The Royal Children's Hospital Social Work department. We acknowledge the input of the Department of Health and Human Services, and RCH consumers and carers.

    Developed August 2019.

    Kids Health Info is supported by The Royal Children’s Hospital Foundation. To donate, visit www.rchfoundation.org.au.


Disclaimer
This information is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your doctor or healthcare professionals. The authors of these consumer health information handouts have made a considerable effort to ensure the information is accurate, up to date and easy to understand. The Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne accepts no responsibility for any inaccuracies, information perceived as misleading, or the success of any treatment regimen detailed in these handouts. Information contained in the handouts is updated regularly and therefore you should always check you are referring to the most recent version of the handout. The onus is on you, the user, to ensure that you have downloaded the most up-to-date version of a consumer health information handout.