Children's exposure to domestic and family violence

Key issues and responses
CFCA Paper No. 36 – December 2015


This paper has considered the effects of domestic and family violence on children. Significant numbers of Australian children experience domestic and family violence, and while outcomes vary for different populations of children, the literature suggests that there are several potential negative outcomes for children exposed. These include poor social, behavioural and academic outcomes and homelessness. Serious negative psychosocial developmental outcomes associated with trauma, including poor attachment to caregivers in infancy, are also thought to be prevalent in children exposed to domestic and family violence. Children exposed to domestic and family violence are also at an increased risk of experiencing abuse, including sexual abuse in their home. The co-occurrence of domestic and family violence alongside other forms of child maltreatment needs particular attention in policy and practice, and responses to children experiencing domestic and family violence should thus consider that children might be multi-victimised.

The correlation between exposure to domestic and family violence in childhood and future perpetration of violence against women is established in a number of studies; however, participants in studies where a correlation has been established have experienced several adversities, such as socio-economic disadvantage, parental mental ill health, parental substance abuse and child abuse. As such, exposure to domestic and family violence alone does not seem to be a factor in future perpetration. Moreover, recent multi-country studies suggest that gender roles, stereotypes and violence-supportive attitudes are important for understanding the correlation.

Policy responses to children exposed to domestic and family violence are complicated by the intersecting policy jurisdictions of child protection, family law, and domestic and family violence sectors. Collaboration and effective integration of these sectors are crucial to providing timely and adequate support to children, as is ensuring that service responses to domestic and family violence are child-inclusive and trauma-informed. There is a great deal of evidence in support of the effectiveness of therapeutic responses to children that focus on rebuilding relational attachments between the non-offending caregiver and child. As resilience in children seems linked to strong relationships with the non-offending caregiver, these approaches are important; however, existing therapeutic services are currently underfunded and there is a lack of suitably qualified therapists.

Finally, primary prevention of domestic and family violence with children and young people is crucial, and there are promising results for the efficacy of school-based programs. Primary prevention strategies with children should be universally delivered and facilitate children to become critical of gender norms and violence-supportive attitudes, and equip them with the skills to form healthy and respectful relationships in adulthood.