Hidden Victims: Domestic Violence and Children


She left home while he was at work.

Erasing her presence from the house, she left nothing behind, not even a note.  Over a stressful 3 hours, she escaped from the man she had been living with, the man she thought she loved -  and disappeared from his life.

It had been building up.

Little things like checking her phone when she was at work, then emails, then his increasing moodiness and an intimidating, simmering anger. Her life became subject to his moods, tiptoeing around his temper, trying to avoid the dreadful consequences of triggering him. She was scared and anxious most of the time. At times, she even blamed herself.

 He hadn't seemed like a violent man when they met.

Nor did he look like someone who wanted to control her every move, but as the months unfolded she understood how damaging the dynamic between them had become - especially for her young son. She couldn't relax at home, never knowing what mood her partner would be in when he came home from work.

She  had resigned from her stressful and frustrating job after becoming pregnant and was now financially dependant on her partner. Lately he had started getting drunk every night. And when he was drunk he became aggressive, verbally abusive and unpredictable.

In order to escape a dangerous and intolerable situation, this young woman was forced to uproot herself and her child, leaving the family vulnerable to poverty and homelessness. Luckily, she had a friend who helped her pack up her household and provided her and her son with somewhere to live.

This is just one of many true stories about women who are victims of domestic violence. Not all women are so lucky.

Sometimes violence can be overt, but at other times it can be insidious and entrenched, an unwelcome dynamic poisoning relationships and making home life unbearable.

Sociologists like Carolyn Whitzman (2008) argue that violence is preventable and that much of the violence that occurs globally is hidden or invisible, particularly that directed against women. Nearly half the world’s population is directly affected by violence in some way. All of us are indirectly involved and we are all affected by it.

Whitzman also argues that safety is both an objective state and a subjective feeling. Women's lives continue to be constrained by the possibility of being victims of male violence. Feminist theorists argue that violence against women continues to be marginalized as a personal issue and responses can take the form of “blaming the victim,” ignoring the wider cultural impact of patriarchal constructs on women’s (and men’s) lives. We need to remember that family violence takes place in the context of the disempowerment of women. “Feminists …believe that domestic violence is not a private problem but rather a societal problem with structural roots.” (Straka & Montminy, 2008, p. 259)  

There is, for example, an unspoken consensus amongst women not to walk in certain areas at night, to confine oneself to certain behaviours - in order to stay safe - it is hard to think of men needing to be careful in this way. The recent murder of young comedian Eurydice Dixon has highlighted the tendency of those in power to blame victims and to underline the responsibility for women to take steps to avoid violence against them, where men's behaviour remains unchanged.

The #metoo movement is part of a global push to raise awareness of sexually predatory behaviour including harrassment and violence against women. It is part of a cultural tide hoping to change the social equilibrium. But far from the bright lights and glamour of hollywood, many women are too scared to be in their own homes. And for those with children, the issue becomes even more urgent.

Violence in the home affects those who witness, as well as those who are directly involved.  Domestic violence is not just about physical aggression - it is about control and power and encompasses the emotional underpinnings of relational violence.  Implied violence, intimidation, financial control, verbal abuse, intrusive and controlling behaviour - these are all strategies used by partners to control those closest to them. A recent Conversation article has highlighted the use of new technologies to stalk, harass and intimidate women - "the borderless nature of the internet...allows abusers to traverse geographical barriers to reach their victims through the use of technology."

Children are exquisitely sensitive to the atmosphere at home and where there is bullying or controlling and dysfunctional relationships, they will absorb the fears and the pain, perhaps even understanding these as a blueprint for all relationships. They will also feel a level of discomfort and disquiet which bleeds into their experience of family and limits their ability to relax and be themselves. Over one million Australian children are affected by domestic violence, according to the Personal Safety Survey (ABS, 2006) In 2006, the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) found that for the years ‘2003–04, children were recorded as being present at 44 % of D/FV incidents.’ (Quoted in Bartels, 2010, p.7)

Unfortunately, abusive partners often target the mother-child relationship, a strategy which can be considered as an additional form of child emotional abuse. Buchanan (2008) describes a pattern of behaviour in abusers which she describes as “Maternal Alienation,” where partners “attack the mother-child relationship,” threatening to harm the children and deliberately undermining and alienating the children from their mothers. (Maternal alienation should not be confused with the more controversial concept of parental alienation where a child is purported to be deliberately alienated from a parent, usually during acrimonious divorce proceedings. For more on maternal alienation please follow this link.)

Israel and Stover (2009) cite a 2000 study which found that children were more fearful of stepfathers and that stepfathers were more emotionally abusive. Alcohol abuse by partners is cited as “one of the consistent and predictive risk factors for injury.” (Thompson et. al., 2001, 2003, cited in Humphreys et. al., 2005, p.1308)  When a mother feels unsafe or intimidated, her ability to parent will most definitely be affected and this, in turn will damage the child, threatening their sense of security and well-being. This can have lasting and significant effects.[1] (Carpenter & Stacks, 2009; Connolly and Cashmore, 2010; Vickerman and Margolin, 2007a).

Researchers such as Megan Sety (2010) argue that “Children experience serious emotional, psychological, social, behavioural and developmental consequences as a result of experiencing violence."

The younger the child, the more vulnerable they will be. An insidious climate of violence and insecurity will impact more severely on very young children, but of course all members of the family will be affected. We know that early experience, including attachment experiences, will impact on the developing child’s brain. A mother who is the victim of a partner’s violence is unlikely to be able to provide the kinds of secure experiences which are needed to create (and retain) a secure attachment.  “Experiences with caregivers and other aspects of the baby's environment, for example violence in the home, play an important role in social and emotional development...” (Carpenter and Stacks, 2009, p.830).

A child with a secure attachment history will carry certain protective factors (trust, the ability to self-regulate and self-soothe as well as prosocial abilities). “A secure attachment relationship …is associated with optimal infant development and prosocial outcomes, including higher levels of social competence, more advanced emotional understanding, higher cognitive and language skills, and less dependence on adults.” (Carpenter and Stacks, 2009, p. 832)

Risk factors for children coping with family violence include “socio-economic disadvantage, social isolation and dangerous neighbourhoods” whilst protective factors include personal characteristics of the child such as positive self-esteem, intelligence and independence, as well as friendships outside the home and good community resources, including schools. (Haskett et al., 2006, p.800). “Single parent families headed by women are among the most vulnerable in society and are at greatest risk of poverty.”  Mothers who are the victims of domestic violence may not have many alternatives. (Alston (2005))

Some theorists have argued that the use of the term “exposure” to describe children’s experience of domestic violence both downplays the negative impacts and implies that the mother can prevent the children from being affected by the violence.

The reality is that violence perpetrated by men against their partners is normally both pervasive and enmeshed in a relationship style which is unlikely to be segregated or siloed by any actions undertaken by the mother except by leaving the relationship. (See Sety, 2010, p. 2) Davies and Sturge-Apple (2007) outline that interparental violence is associated with “other forms of destructive interactions” meaning that children in violent homes are likely to be exposed to a range of behaviors which can have a more “insidious impact.” (p.169) “Children and young people …have a higher level of awareness of the violence than their mothers report. Children do not have to directly witness or be involved in violent episodes in order to be affected.” (Mulroney, 2003, p.7) Domestic violence is likely to create an atmosphere of threat, intimidation and insecurity. According to family systems theory, (Minuchin, 1974) one member’s distress will have an impact on all members.

Theorists such as Vickerman and Margolin (2007a) view exposure to family violence as a “complex trauma” which is defined as one which is chronic and unpredictable. They argue that the cumulative effects of being exposed to violence can trigger or precipitate PTSD (see also Carpenter and Stacks, 2009). Being exposed to interparental violence is a risk factor for other forms of abuse such as physical and sexual abuse, particularly where substance misuse is also present, as is the case with Luke. Buchanan (2008) argues that infants in violent homes are at risk of “symptoms typical of post traumatic stress disorder, including sleep disturbances, night terrors, separation anxiety, aggressiveness, hyperactivity, emotional detachment and constriction.” (p.3) 

Using theories of stress and coping, Rossman, Hughes and Rosenberg, (1999) outline the potential for helpful and unhelpful modes of coping in relation to children exposed to violence in the home. Children may respond to violence by internalizing cognitive schemas (for example “anger is uncontrollable,” “escape is the safest strategy” or “interpersonal interactions are dangerous”) which may be inappropriate when used in other contexts, such as at school. On the other hand there may be some coping strategies (e.g. hiding from attackers), which might be useful. Rossman et.al. (1999) also argue that the younger a child is, the greater the risk that development will occur in the context of violence. (p.66) Social learning theory tells us that being exposed to interparental violence is likely to teach older children dysfunctional approaches to the resolution of conflict. “witnessing violence in the family predicts the perpetration of aggression in intimate relationships in adolescence and adulthood.” (Bartels, 2009, p.8)

For many Australian children, home is not a haven, but a place where they are at risk. Cultural values of privacy and self-sufficiency can prevent family violence from becoming public. I believe that our cultural assumptions around family life can blind us to the domestic realities faced by many children (and adults). The emotional abuse of children has been a neglected area of research and response, yet it is clear that it can be both pervasive and have long-lasting effects. With the emphasis in the media and through Government interventions on the horrors of severe physical and sexual abuse, the more subtle and insidious forms of child abuse can remain hidden. Bodies of research and agency responses and services have largely been targeted at specific forms of family violence, but a holistic approach is needed if we are to address the “totality of violence” (Tomison) in families at risk. Flexible interventions and support for families need to be better resourced to respond to those in need prior to the legal mandates of Child Protection. It is a matter of providing resources which are appropriately accessible and de-stigmatised, including education and counselling. Unfortunately, the child protection system is crisis driven and designed around the need to intervene after abuse has occurred. Healthy relationships and healthy children require nurturing, education, and support – prevention rather than cure.




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Connolly, M and Cashmore, J., (2010) Child Welfare Practice, in Marie Connolly and Louise Harms (eds) Social Work, Contexts and Practice, South Mebourne, Oxford University Press,

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[1] DeBoard and Grych argue that the links between intimate partner violence and child maladjustment are well established. They cite “elevated rates of internalizing and externalizing symptoms, academic problems, and peer problems…witnessing violence in the family predicts the perpetration of aggression in intimate relationships in adolescence and adulthood.” DeBoard and Grych (2011), p. 343

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