Children who witness domestic violence during the breakdown of their parents’ relationship do worse than their peers socially and academically, become distrusting of adults, and can develop antisocial behaviours.
And a majority of parents who separate, experience physical or emotional abuse during their relationship breakdown, according to a new Australian Institute of Family Studies survey of 6000 recently separated parents.
The study highlights how family violence impacts on children. Half the parents interviewed said their children had been exposed to family violence, and 70 per cent of these believe their children had suffered as a result.
“Our research shows that any exposure to family violence leads to poorer outcomes for children,” report author Rae Kaspiew said. “It impacts their educational development and their social and emotional wellbeing. Exposure to a difficult dynamic between the parents impacts the child’s ability to develop optimally.”
Dr Kaspiew said it was the third study in six years to show the same prevalence of family violence, and the negative effect it has on children. “It’s kind of concerning to still be seeing it. It reinforces that reducing the prevalence and impact [of family violence] is very difficult to change.”
Parents were most likely to say witnessing family violence had made their child fearful, anxious and upset. Some children became more clingy, while others withdrew emotionally. Children also became scared of other adults who were the same gender as the parent responsible for the abuse at home.
Some separated parents said they felt their relationship with their children had changed as a result of family violence. Mothers particularly reported their child had become more protective of them or other family members in the aftermath.
Parents also observed children having problems with bedwetting, sleeping, eating, being desensitised to violence and aggression, and not wanting to see the other parent. Parents worried about what effect witnessing family violence would have on their children later in life.
Dr Kaspiew said parents in family violence situations needed to be aware of the impact it could be having on their child, and try to prevent them being exposed to the violence.
“You need to pay extra attention to how they’re feeling. Some children may need counselling,” she said.
One in five kids who had been affected by family violence developed antisocial behaviours such as aggression and violence, with parents suggesting they were modelling negative behaviours they had seen at home.
The study also found that a higher proportion of children who witnessed family violence did worse at school and socially, than those who do not come from violent homes. Young children aged one to three who witnessed prolonged physical abuse exhibited more behaviour problems than their peers.
Emotional abuse is the most common form of family violence parents experience after separating, affecting 61 per cent of women and 55 per cent of men. This abuse includes insults, making defamatory comments, threatening harm, damaging property, monitoring whereabouts, and preventing access to money.
Dr Kaspiew said it was “almost as damaging” for a child to witness emotional abuse as see physical harm at home.
One fifth of parents experienced physical abuse before or during separation, ranging from cuts and bruises to gunshot or stab wounds. The incidence of physical violence fell dramatically after separation, affecting 5 per cent of fathers and 6 per cent of mothers.
Two thirds of parents said their mental health suffered as a result of domestic violence before or during separation. Fathers who experienced domestic violence were more likely to take days off work as a result, while mothers were more likely to cut back on their social activities, and feel insecure and intimidated.
This article first appeared on ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’ on 20 November 2015.