The term family violence refers to violent or abusive behaviour in the home directed toward one or more persons. In Australia, the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (2005) Personal Safety Survey found that of all women who had experienced partner violence since the age of 15 years and had children in their care during the relationship, 59 percent reported that the violence had been witnessed by children.1
Victims of violence
Experts believe that 50-70 per cent of men who abuse their partners also abuse children in the home. In homes with four or more children, the figure jumps to over 90 per cent. The impact of physical violence directly aimed at a child is both obvious and measurable by injuries sustained.
According to the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Centre, battering during pregnancy is the leading cause of birth defects and infant mortality – more than the birth defects caused by all of the diseases for which people are routinely inoculated, combined.
Children are often unintentionally injured when furniture is overturned or objects are thrown. Older children are injured when they try to intervene and protect their mother or siblings. They become victims of violence by being caught in the crossfire.
Witnesses to violence
One-third of the children who witness violence in the home demonstrate significant behaviour and/or emotional problems, including psychosomatic disorders, stuttering, anxiety, bed wetting, excessive crying and anger, and problems in school.
It is important to note that children can be adversely affected just by overhearing arguments, even when physical violence is not present.
If children do not see the violence take place, they will see the results – bruises, broken dishes or furniture, holes punched in walls – as well as hear the screams and sense the fear and tension in the home.
When children grow up experiencing or witnessing violence, they react in various ways, depending on age and gender. Some studies show that preschool boys are at risk for developing behaviour problems and adolescent males who witness family violence are likely to use violence with their mothers during conflicts.
Although it appears that boys exhibit more overall problems due to witnessing spousal abuse, girls tend to exhibit low self-esteem and insecurity in relationships.
Some children react to family violence by internalising their feelings which is manifested by depression and anxiety.
In young children, depression may take the form of sadness, poor appetite, chronic fatigue, withdrawal from friends and low self-esteem.
Many older boys feel responsible for protecting their mother which causes anxiety problems. In extreme cases, a boy may feel such pressure that he sees only two options: suicide or homicide.
Aggressive, angry behaviour is a common reaction to witnessing family violence. Many young people use anger and aggressive behaviour to cope with their fear. Others use alcohol, drugs, sex, and food to numb their feelings.
It is not uncommon for an older child to threaten or abuse younger siblings to get what they want. They have learned their lesson well from the abuser who uses violence to get what he wants.
Sons may also become physically and verbally abusive toward their mother. If the husband is no longer living in the home, they may feel entitled to take his place as man of the house.
Children may relive violent episodes through dreams or by watching family violence on TV. These flashes of memory can result in periods of insecurity, fear and depression.
Some children blame themselves for the behaviour of the abuser, and suffer undue guilt and shame. Others blame the victimised parent who didn’t protect them or do something to stop the violence.
Boys who witness their father abuse their mother are more likely to repeat the pattern of abuse in their own homes because they learn that men have a right to beat women. This message is ingrained in boys at a young age so that it becomes a natural response to use force to "keep her in line."
Girls grow up believing that disrespect is normal, and they may either tolerate it from an abusive spouse or they may end up being an abusive spouse.
Psychological and verbal violence
Children who have experienced physical abuse often report they were more traumatised by the emotional and verbal abuse than the physical.
Unfortunately, this type of abuse (threatening, humiliating, name calling, yelling, rejecting) is not as measurable as a broken arm or a black eye, and must reach extreme levels before it is taken seriously by family members, health professionals or the legal system.
Many professionals who have worked with family violence for years agree that psychological and verbal abuse can be more damaging than physical abuse. While research shows the devastating effects divorce has on children, it is time we take a closer look at the effects of family violence as well. This is the dilemma of the concerned mother who stays in an abusive relationship for the sake of the children. Which is worse for the children – staying in a violent home or being traumatised by divorce?
According to Dr. Richard Gelles, a leader in the study of domestic violence, the worst thing that can happen to children is to grow up in an abusive home.
What children learn from living in an abusive home
They learn to keep secrets. They are told from a young age not to tell anyone about what is said or what happens in the home. They are often threatened with physical harm if they talk, and some are told they will be taken away from their parents if they tell. "Don’t tell anyone – it’s family business!" is the message that comes through loud and clear in abusive or dysfunctional homes.
They learn that violence is an acceptable way to solve disagreements or get what they want. Boys grow up thinking it is a man’s right to keep his wife in line, even if it includes violence.
They learn that abuse is normal. Children who grow up in abusive homes believe the myth that all families experience abuse. Girls grow up believing it is normal for them to suffer abuse from their boyfriends or husbands.
They learn not to trust people. Children grow up believing they will be hurt by people who claim to love them, so they build a wall of self-protection from painful relationships.
They learn to take on additional responsibilities to protect their parent and siblings who are being abused. They work hard to keep the peace and pacify the abuser. Children often feel guilty and blame themselves for violence in the home. They believe the lie that if they were better children their father would not get upset and become violent.
Divorce is traumatic for children because it rips the family apart.
Abuse in the home is even more damaging than divorce because it places the child at risk, promotes violence as a way of solving problems, and repeats the cycle of abuse in future families.
Everyone in an abusive family is wounded – the abuser during childhood, the victim at present and the children for a lifetime!
As long as abuse continues, we are setting children up for a life of destructive patterns and failed marriages.