Quick escape (ESC)

Children who witness domestic violence

The impacts of domestic abuse on children can be felt for the rest of their lives. Churches must be alert to risks to children in their care.

On this page
Content warning This page involves descriptions and discussion of the experiences and impacts of domestic and family violence. Some survivors might find its content troubling.

Research shows that witnessing family violence is as harmful as experiencing it directly. Parents often believe that they have shielded their children from spousal violence, but research shows that children see or hear some 40% to 80% of it.

Children’s exposure to family violence can take many forms, including:

  • Being subjected to deliberate or accidental violence
  • Overhearing violence
  • Intervening on behalf of a parent or other person
  • Experiencing the aftermath of violence.

Effects of violence on children

Family violence has severe impacts for children who witness it. Children who witness family violence are likely to become fearful and anxious. They are always on guard, watching and waiting for the next event to occur. They never know what will trigger the abuse, and therefore, they never feel safe. They are always worried for themselves, their mother, and their siblings.

Children who grow up with abuse are often expected to keep the family secret, sometimes not even talking to each other about the abuse. They may blame themselves. They may also become angry at their siblings or their mother for ‘triggering’ the abuse.

Children of abuse often feel isolated and vulnerable. They are starved for attention, affection and approval. These children can become physically, emotionally and psychologically abandoned. They often develop poor reading and language skills and tend to have difficulty establishing friendships with their peers. Apart from the emotional, physical, social and behavioural damage abuse creates for children, domestic violence can also become a learned behaviour. This means that children may grow up to think it is okay to use violence to get what they want and that it is okay for there to be violence in their adult relationships.

Often the behavioural and emotional impacts of domestic and family violence improve when children and their mothers are safe, the violence is no longer occurring and they receive support and specialist counselling.

It is worth noting though that some children living in violent situations may present as high achieving and thus not appear on anyone’s radar. It is so important that we have regular check-ins with children and young people in our communities so that no one falls through the cracks.

Protective factors

It is important to note that not all children are affected in the same way by family violence. Children can be protected from some of the impacts of family violence if they have:

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

If you are a mandatory reporter

A child who witnesses violence at home is experiencing a form of child abuse. In most jurisdictions this must be reported to the relevant child protection authorities

More information about what to do if a child discloses abuse to you can be found in our section on reporting to the police.