Violence in families: The context
What's Important To Us
For many children and young people in New Zealand, violence in their families is a common part of their childhood experience. No matter the level or frequency of events, living around violence is likely to have an effect on a child’s psychological and physical wellbeing. Exposure to violence also poses significant threats to a child’s development, the consequences of which can be long lasting. Within the complex dynamic of intra-familial conflict, children and young people need us to pay attention to them. We need to ensure the right supports are in place and that these focus on their strengths, the protective factors around children, increasing safety and enhancing wellbeing.
This key information is part of a series that focuses on what family violence looks like and its impact on children and young people.
What is 'family violence'?
‘Family violence' or ‘domestic violence' are terms commonly used to describe, "a broad range of controlling behaviours commonly of a physical, sexual and/or psychological nature which typically involve fear, intimidation, and emotional deprivation". The act of the violence can mean physical violence such as slapping or punching or seem less visible such as stalking, making threats and withholding money. However tangible or covert the act(s) of violence, they all demonstrate abusive behaviour.
Family violence usually takes place within households and family-type environments. Statistics tell us this issue affects a large number of families in New Zealand and there is a strong correlation between child maltreatment and family violence, (Farmer & Pollack, 1998; Edleson, 1999). The dominant pattern within 'family violence' is men perpetrating violence against women, but family violence can occur in other situations: within same sex relationships, men abused by women, parents abused by a child and violence between siblings.
What the law says
The Domestic Violence Act 1995 defines violence within whānau or ‘domestic relationships' as:
- physical abuse
- sexual abuse
- psychological abuse, including intimidation, harassment, damage to property and threats of abuse
- psychological abuse against a child
There is the risk of children and young people getting caught up in the violent behaviour and harmed in that way. The Act is also explicit about the impact of violence in families on children and young people, specifically the risk for a child who sees or hears violence in domestic relationships.
Why does violence in families happen?
It is difficult at times to understand what might bring people to perpetrate violence against others, particularly those with whom they hold a relationship. A wide range of complex factors can contribute to the situation where the violence takes place.
There are a number of differing perspectives or theories about the nature and cause of violent behaviour within families; a gendered perspective that recognises the fundamental disempowerment of woman, a social context (stressors, past experience and learnt behaviours), and Duluth's power and control model. Other issues such as mental illness and drug and alcohol use and the interplay of these factors are also likely to be highly relevant to the circumstances within which violence occurs.
The issues for children and young people
Nearly half of the reports of concern received by Oranga Tamariki include worries about family violence. Research also tells us that children and young people living with violence in their families are at a heightened risk of experiencing physical or sexual abuse, (Farmer & Pollack, 1998; Edleson, 1999; Cawson, 2002). As a social worker, you need to be aware of the ways in which family violence and child abuse co-exist, and how to appropriately and safely respond to these situations.
While an instance of family violence may not appear to present a direct or immediate threat to a child, it is important not to underestimate its impact. Living with any type of violence has a considerable impact on a child's physical and psychological wellbeing and can disrupt brain development, sometimes with far reaching consequences, (Perry, 1996, 2001; Rossman, 2001). The way children and young people will display this impact will depend on their age and circumstances. Babies and infants might show poor health, excessive screaming or disrupted sleep, (Jaffe et al, 1990) and problems with attachment (Quinlivan & Evans, 2005). They are particularly vulnerable to shaking injuries so timely, robust responses to vulnerable infants living with family violence are important. Young children find it difficult to express their emotions verbally, blame themselves for the adult anger and will show their response through their behaviour. This might manifest in school attendance, (Mullender et al, 2002) or low mood, depression and anxiety, (McCloskey et al, 1995). Older children and young people are likely to show the effects of disruption in their social and school environments (Mullender et al, 2002).
Cawson, P. (2002) Child Maltreatment in the Family: The Experience of a National Sample of Young People. In C. Humphreys, & N. Stanley (eds) (2006) Domestic Violence and Child Protection: Directions for Good Practice. Jessica Kingsley: London
Edleson, J. (1999). Children witnessing of adult domestic violence. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 14(4)839-70.
Farmer, E. & Pollack, S. (1998). Substitute Care for Sexually Abused and Abusing Children. Chichester: Wiley.
Perry, B. (1996). Neurodevelopmental Adaptations to Violence: How Children Survive the Intragenerational Vortex of Violence on Young Children. Cleveland: Gund Foundation.
Perry, B. (2001). The neurodevelopmental impact of violence in childhood. In D. Schetky and E.P. Benedek (Eds) Textbook of Child and Adolescent Forensic Psychiatry. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Press, (pp.221-238).
McCloskey, L et al (1995) The Effects of Systemic Family Violence on Children's Mental Health', Child Development, Vol.66, pp1239-161. In C. Humphreys, C. Houghton, & J. Ellis (2008). Literature review: Better Outcomes for Children and Young People Experiencing Domestic Abuse - Directions for Good Practice. RR Donnelley: Scotland.
Mullender, A et al (2002) Children's Perspectives on Domestic Violence. London: Routledge. In C. Humphreys, C. Houghton, & J. Ellis (2008). Literature review: Better Outcomes for Children and Young People Experiencing Domestic Abuse - Directions for Good Practice. RR Donnelley: Scotland.
Rossman, B.B.R. (2001). Longer term effects of children's exposure to domestic violence. In S. Graham-Bermann (Ed.) Domestic Violence in the Lives of Children (pp. 35-65) Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Quinlivan, J. & Evans, S. (2005) Impact of Domestic Violence and Drug Abuse in Pregnancy on Maternal Attachment and Infant Temperament in Teenage Mothers in the Setting of Best Clinical Practice. Archives of Women's Mental Health, Vol.8, pp191-199.