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Effect of Family Violence on Children

Family violence is defined in Section 4AB of the Family Law Act 1975 as violent, threatening or other behaviour by a person that coerces or controls a member of the person’s family, or causes the family member to be fearful.

Examples of behaviour that may constitute family violence include (but are not limited to):

  • an assault; or
  • a sexual assault or other sexually abusive behaviour; or
  • stalking; or
  • repeated derogatory taunts; or
  • intentionally damaging or destroying property; or
  • intentionally causing death or injury to an animal; or
  • unreasonably denying the family member the financial autonomy that he or she would otherwise have had; or
  • unreasonably withholding financial support needed to meet the reasonable living expenses of the family member, or his or her child, at a time when the family member is entirely or predominantly dependent on the person for financial support; or
  • preventing the family member from making or keeping connections with his or her family, friends or culture; or
  • unlawfully depriving the family member, or any member of the family member’s family, or his or her liberty.

Section 4AB of the Act states a child is exposed to family violence if they see or hear family violence, or otherwise experience the effects of family violence.

Children’s Exposure to Family Violence

Examples of situations that may constitute a child being exposed to family violence include (but are not limited to) the child:

  • overhearing threats of death or personal injury by a member of the child’s family towards another member of the child’s family; or
  • seeing or hearing a member of the child’s family being assaulted by another member of the family;
  • comforting or providing assistance to a member of the child’s family who has been assaulted by another member of the child’s family; or
  • cleaning up a site after a member of the child’s family has intentionally damaged property belonging to another member of the child’s family; or
  • being present when police or ambulance officers attend an incident involving the assault of a member of the child’s family by another member of the child’s family.

Effects of Family Violence on Children

Children who are exposed to family violence have more emotional and behavioural problems when compared to the development of children who have not been exposed to family violence.  Children in violent homes are also at an increased risk of physical abuse, or of suffering from physical and emotional neglect.

Younger children are more vulnerable than older children, as they spend most of their time with their primary caregivers, and are more dependent on their parents for care and protection. Teenagers exposed to family violence may be more aggressive to their parents, and others around them, often leading to the perpetuation of violence.

Children exposed to family violence are at greater risk of:

  • having difficulties controlling their emotions;
  • developing depression or antisocial problems such as delinquency or violent behaviours, particularly as teenagers;
  • developing poor relationships with both parents;
  • developing poor reading and language skills; and
  • having difficulties making and maintaining friendships.

When family violence is combined with other problems, such as drug and alcohol abuse and mental health concerns, children are at even greater risk of developing emotional, behavioural, social and educational problems.

Combatting the Effects of Family Violence on Children

The potential effects of family violence can be mitigated by certain “’protective factors’, such as:

  • parenting that provides structure, warmth, emotional support and positive reinforcement, and
  • positive support from other adults outside their immediate family, such as relatives, family friends and teachers.

Providing children with an environment in which they feel both physically and psychologically safe is an important priority.

However, the capacity of a parent who is the victim of family violence to provide a child with these protective factors is inhibited by the effects of the violence on that parent. For example, exposure to violence can result in the victim parent:

  • changing the way they parent in front of the abusive parent to avoid more anger and abuse;
  • being less able to meet the child’s needs due to the stress of the abuse;
  • experiencing depression and other mental health problems that can affect parenting; and
  • using harsh discipline due to stress (this has been found to stop when the family is safe).

Furthermore, any protective factors are unlikely to be provided to the child by the parent perpetrating the violence as the parent often exhibits behaviour such as:

  • use of coercive and manipulative tactics;
  • inconsistency in discipline;
  • unnecessarily harsh discipline;
  • anger towards the child; and
  • being uninvolved in parenting.

These behaviours compound the effects of the violence on the child.

If you would like legal advice on the effect of family violence on children or any other legal matter, please contact Armstrong Legal.

Felicity Reeman - Senior Associate – Sydney

This article was written by Felicity Reeman - Senior Associate – Sydney

Felicity graduated from the University of New South Wales with a Juris Doctor. Prior to studying law, she gained a Bachelor of Social Work (Hons.) and a Graduate Diploma of Psychology from the University of Sydney. She previously worked as a clinical social worker for 6 years in one of Sydney’s largest teaching hospitals bringing that invaluable knowledge and experience...

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