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Impact of family violence on children

Firstly, I appreciate that discussions about family violence can be a trigger for many people. Please make sure you feel comfortable proceeding before reading this article.

Family violence takes many forms – physical and sexual violence, verbal abuse, and coercive and controlling behaviour. The overarching element is the use of power and control by the perpetrator.

The most immediate impact on children of family violence is when it manifests in the form of direct physical or sexual violence perpetrated on the child themselves.

However, it is well accepted that children – when not the direct physical victim – do not simply witness family violence from a distance.  It has been said that “children who experience family violence in their homes experience it with all their senses.  They hear it, see it and experience the aftermath”.  

Over recent years more attention has been given by researchers to exploring the impact of exposure to the use of power and control by one parent over the other on children’s health, learning, wellbeing and development.

Research has found that the impact on children of experiencing this family violence manifests differently according to the age and developmental level of the child.  For example:

  • Infants whose mothers were subject to violence had lower birth weights, higher rates of pre-term labour, foetal distress and death;
  • Young children display delayed toilet training, development of verbal skills and memory;
  • School aged children have been found to have higher rates of conduct disorders and lower educational attainment – more likely to suffer from depression, display aggression and difficulties developing positive peer relationships due to poor social skills;
  • The impact of experiencing family violence can continue into adolescence and adulthood in any number of ways – including continuing to experience (or even developing) depression and anxiety.

A review of the studies shows that there are longer-term impacts as well. One long-term impact is that children who experience family violence often experience violence in a number of other settings – such as in their school and in the community.  Studies have also shown that another longer-term impact can be “intergenerational transmission”; US research has shown a correlation between childhood experiences of violence in young girls and their likelihood of becoming a victim of family violence as an adult; it also found that men whose mothers had experienced family violence were more likely to become perpetrators of family violence.

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