- How does family and domestic violence affect children’s mental health?
- How does family and domestic violence affect parent-child relationships?
- How to talk with parents about family and domestic violence
- Parent-sensitive practice
- Making children visible
- Highlighting strengths and hopes
Family and domestic violence (FDV) is one of Australia’s biggest social issues. No matter what kind of service you work in, you’re likely to come across families who have been or are currently impacted by violence and abuse – whether you realise it or not. Therefore, it’s important all professionals – especially those working in adult-focused services – understand the ‘climate of fear’ FDV creates, and have the skills and confidence to talk with parents about how it’s affecting not just them, but their children’s health, development and wellbeing.
Recent statistics show that 1 in 6 women over 15 years of age has experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of a current or previous partner; 1 in 4 has experienced emotional abuse; and 1 in 5 has experienced sexual violence (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2017). These rates are even higher amongst LGBTQ+ Australians: more than 3 in 5 have experienced some form of violence or abuse from a current or ex-partner (Hill, Bourne, McNair, Carman, & Lyons, 2020), but are less likely to find support services that meet their specific needs (ACON, n.d.). Say It Out Loud has a range of tools and information to help professionals effectively support LGBTQ+ people living with FDV, including a language guide, safety planning tool and service directory.
Current rates of FDV in Australia may be even higher than these figures suggest. Google searches for ‘domestic violence support’ and calls to helplines have increased since nation-wide COVID-19 lockdowns began in 2020 (Doran, 2020; Kelly, 2020); and almost two-thirds of women surveyed who’d experienced violence between February and May 2020 said it had started or escalated since the pandemic began (Boxall et al., 2020).
Acknowledging the climate of fear created by FDV enables you to see the world through a child’s eyes. This ‘domestic violence lens’, when coupled with the principles of trauma-informed care, can help you to provide parents and children with the support they need to heal and thrive. Understanding FDV as a social and political issue that can affect certain groups of women and children particularly severely will also strengthen your practice.
In the video below (1 min, 28 sec), Megan Hughes (Executive Manager, Strategic Projects at Women’s Safety Services South Australia) explains how generalist practitioners can help women experiencing family and domestic violence make sense of their situation.
Emerging Minds recognises the additional complexities faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families living with FDV. The intersection between violence and the impacts of colonisation, racism and intergenerational trauma is far too broad to cover in this short resource. Instead, we recommend checking out our Healing through voice, culture and Country e-learning course and podcast episodes.
Children don’t need to directly witness violence or abuse to be affected by it. The climate of fear that family violence creates seeps into all aspects of the child’s life, both in the present and the future.
In the podcast excerpt below (53 sec), Aerinn Morgan (Senior Practitioner, Adult and Family Counselling at Uniting Communities) describes some of the ways she’s seen FDV affect children.
Older children may attempt to protect the parent who is experiencing the violence – for example, by pretending to be sick so they can stay home from school with their parent/s and intervene if anything occurs. At school, they may be distracted by thoughts of the violence, or lash out during conflicts in ways that emulate some of the abuse they’ve witnessed at home. They may participate less in class or withdraw from their peers, and their grades may drop.
Understanding the context a child is living in will provide you with a better picture of their social and emotional wellbeing as a whole, and help you to avoid incorrectly pathologising their behaviour.
Family and domestic violence distorts the relationship between mother, child and father. The physical and emotional exhaustion it creates limits the mother’s capacity to parent in the way she would like. This can often result in harsh or overly protective parenting, and lead to feelings of shame, blame and guilt.
In addition, perpetrators often undermine the mother-child relationship by ensuring the child witnesses their mother’s humiliation. Negative attitudes expressed by the father towards mothers and women in general can also erode the relationship between mother and child.
In the following video (1 min 38 sec), Sarah Wendt (Professor of Social Work at Flinders University) discusses how taking a gendered view of family and domestic violence can improve the safety of mothers and children.
The father-child relationship is characterised by the father’s use of violence, and is also likely to feature inattentive, inconsistent and uninvolved parenting. Those fathers who are actively involved in raising their children are more likely to be rigid and authoritarian. However, it’s important to note that most fathers who use violence still love their children, and will look to alleviate any conflicting emotions by blaming others for their actions.
Even after parents separate, children are likely to have ongoing contact with their father. They may feel torn between their love for both parents, and their negative feelings around their father’s behaviour. They may also miss their father and worry about him, even though they recognise they’re better off living separately from him.
Talking with families about violence and abuse can be incredibly daunting, especially if you’re not used to working in this space. Even if you have a solid understanding of FDV and its impacts, you may not feel confident in talking about it with your clients.
The PERCS Conversation Guide has been designed specifically to improve generalist practitioners’ confidence in this area. It will:
- help you to identify entry points into conversations with parents about their child’s mental health
- provide example questions to help you explore how the child might be impacted by family violence
- outline six practice positions which support collaborative, respectful conversations with parent-clients; and
- offer guidance around providing resources, referrals and other support to families.
The guide is designed to help you recognise parents’ strengths and hopes for their family, and opportunities to support and improve children’s mental and physical health, resilience and wellbeing. Recognising the gendered nature of family and domestic violence, Emerging Minds has created separate guides for working with mothers living with violence, and with fathers using violence. The following are just a couple of the approaches you’ll find in these guides.
In the context of FDV, a parent-sensitive approach assumes that children’s safety and their social and emotional wellbeing are significant motivators for both mothers and fathers. It sees the parenting role as a central feature of meaning and motivation in the client’s life.
Every decision a mother experiencing FDV makes is shaped by the climate of fear in which she’s living. Violence and abuse can have significant negative effects on a woman’s self-esteem, decision-making skills, and confidence in her own judgements, opinions and abilities. It can make her feel guilty or ashamed for failing to escape from or resolve the violence; uncertain about what to do; concerned about how service providers might respond if she discloses the abuse – not to mention what might happen if her partner finds out; and hopeful that things can change, especially if she is still in love with the perpetrator (Gueta, Peled, & Sander-Almoznino, 2016; Visser et al., 2016). A parent-sensitive approach involves having curious conversations about children without reinforcing any of these negative feelings or beliefs.
This approach finds ways to talk with fathers who use violence about their children, their children’s safety, and the effects of their violence on their children’s wellbeing, without stigmatising or shaming them. At the same time, it prioritises the safety of partners and children, by focusing on the father’s responsibility for his behaviour and avoiding validating or colluding with him. (Centre for Community Child Health, 2010; Moore, McDonald, Sanjeevan, & Price, 2012; Parenting Research Centre, 2018; Sayal et al., 2010)
In the podcast excerpt below (50 sec), David Tully (Practice Manager, Specialised Family Violence Services at Relationships Australia) describes what positive engagement looks like with fathers who use violence.
Children are more perceptive than we give them credit for. While they may not fully understand the nuances of an abusive situation, most are quick to grasp the ideas of safety and fairness; what is and isn’t OK. However, adult-focused services tend to focus on the parent’s presenting problem, losing sight of its potential impact on their children.
A child-aware approach acknowledges and considers the experiences of the client’s children, and ensures children are visible in all conversations. It involves working with the adult in ways that support their parenting role, as well as their child’s mental health and wellbeing. In this way, you can help parents to create a solid foundation for their children’s health outcomes in later life.
If your practice involves working with children directly, simply being curious about how the child sees the world and understands the violence and abuse can be incredibly helpful. This allows you to work alongside the child, instead of just doing things ‘for’ and ‘to’ them. Children can often feel powerless in the face of FDV, even if they are not directly experiencing the violence or abuse themselves; but restructuring the ‘hierarchy’ of practice to position them as the expert in their own life can help to reduce some of these feelings.
Parents affected by violence – both victims and perpetrators – may find it hard to identify their strengths or name things to be hopeful about. But helping parents to focus on their skills, resources, values and hopes for their children can fuel their motivation for change.
- focus on what is working well and how those factors can be enhanced
- acknowledge parents’ efforts to care for their children and keep them safe, along with their strengths, the strengths of their children and family, and the resources available to them
- avoid focusing on parents’ shortfalls and limitations; and
- promote self-compassion.
This approach is not about minimising or ignoring the violence. Instead, it allows space for parents to become active participants in finding solutions to these problems. For fathers who are using violence, this might involve exploring the opportunities for connection and trust that are lost through the use of coercion, control, threats or put-downs. If you’re working with a mother who is experiencing FDV, you might emphasise the strengths she shows in maintaining family routines. (Miller & Rollnick, 2012; Moore et al., 2012; Reardon et al., 2017)
When working with parents experiencing FDV, it’s especially important to focus on strengths as skills that can be called upon in certain situations, rather than fixed character traits. If a mother uses courage to escape a violent relationship, a traditional strengths-based approach might label her as a courageous person. But if her ex later tracks her down and threatens her and her children, and she is unable to stand up to him, she may start to question her ‘courageous’ identity and become discouraged and self-critical. Helping parents to see the differences between situations – in this case, the increased risk of harm to both the mother and her children – and appreciate that they may not be able to apply their strengths to every situation is key to supporting resilience and fostering hope.
Family and domestic violence is a symptom of broader social issues: gender inequality and societal attitudes that support violence, misconstrue masculinity and undermine respectful relationships. It has a massive cost – not just at an economic and productivity level, but in terms of the potential long-term consequences for children’s mental health, development and wellbeing.
However, the damages caused by FDV are not irreversible. The earlier family violence can be identified and addressed, the better the family’s chances of recovery. Children show incredible resilience, and with the right support at any stage, they can go on to thrive beyond their experiences of abuse.
The resources outlined below have been especially designed to help you navigate this work with confidence.
ACON. (n.d.). Domestic & family violence. Available here.
Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). (2017). Personal Safety Survey 2016 (ABS Cat. No. 4906.0). Canberra: ABS. Available here.
Boxall, H., Morgan, A., & Brown, R. (2020). The prevalence of domestic violence among women during the COVID-19 pandemic. Statistical Bulletin no. 28. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology. Available here.
Centre for Community Child Health. (2010). Engaging marginalised and vulnerable families (Policy Brief No. 18). Melbourne: Royal Children’s Hospital. Available here.
Doran, M. (2020, 1 May). Domestic violence services prepare for demand as coronavirus restrictions begin to ease. ABC News. Available here.
Gueta, K., Peled, E., & Sander-Almoznino, N. (2016). ‘I used to be an ordinary mom’: The maternal identity of mothers of women abused by an intimate partner. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 86, 456.
Parenting Research Centre. (2018). smalltalk manual. Melbourne: Parenting Research Centre.
Reardon, T., Harvey, K., Baranowska, M., O’Brien, D., Smith, L., & Creswell, C. (2017). What do parents perceive are the barriers and facilitators to accessing psychological treatment for mental health problems in children and adolescents? A systematic review of qualitative and quantitative studies. European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 26(6), 623-647. Available here.
Sayal, K., Tischler, V., Coope, C., Robotham, S., Ashworth, M., Day, C., … Simonoff, E. (2010). Parental help-seeking in primary care for child and adolescent mental health concerns: Qualitative study. British Journal of Psychiatry, 197(6), 476–481. Available here.
Visser, M., Overbeek, M., de Schipper, J., Schoemaker, K., Lamers-Winkelman, F., & Finkenauer, C. (2016). Mother–child emotion dialogues in families exposed to interparental violence. Journal of Child Custody, 13, 178–198. Available here.