The Impact of Domestic Violence on Children

September 20, 2017

Children are affected by various interacting direct and indirect elements.

The impact of domestic violence on children is two-fold: on them directly in psychological reactions and indirectly through their attachment with their mothers which can be damaged due to trauma and vicarious trauma.

  • Attachment with mother – for all ages of children but critical for under 3 y o’s
  • Brain development – babies & infants
  • Development across all domains
  • Mothers’ parenting capacity
  • Children’s temperament & mental health
  • Family context: tension, fear; isolation, deviance

Studies over the last 30 years have found that children and adolescents experience a variety of psychological damage, experiencing poor self-esteem, hypervigilance, anxiety and, most prevalent, depression. Other factors are significant: the helplessness and anger engendered can lead to a sense that life is out of control or identification with the aggressor, leading to behaviours and the entrenchment of gendered social values.

Infants and children who have experienced ongoing domestic violence can be considered to have suffered longitudinal complex traumatisation.

They are highly likely to experience the symptoms of traumatisation, such as invasive thoughts and sensations, emotional vigilance & reactivity: internalising mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression and/or exhibit externalising behaviour disorders, eg conduct disorder

If they do not receive intervention which makes them safe and assists with the traumatisation they are highly likely to become victims or perpetrators of abuse and/or violence, i.e.: intergenerational transmission.

Attachment issues

If the violence occurs when children are babies or infants the quality of the attachment pattern is altered or damaged. Some mothers are able to withstand the relationship conflict and to protect the baby or infant, maintaining a close connection despite the abuse. Many are not able to and the infant-mother attachment pattern is compromised. For example maternal depression can have significant effect upon interactions with a baby, often leaving the baby’s needs unmet and resulting in various forms of insecure attachment. Thus infants are affected in the fundamental building blocks of their personality development.


If separation occurs and the women and children are safe with the man out of the home, work can begin to heal the wounds. Mothers and children can benefit from support, counselling, group work and other methods, all with the function of hearing fully, validating, affirming and normalising their emotional reactions on the road to processing them. Fathers who admit to the violence benefit from the same processes and need to be offered services. Supervised contact with the children provides emotional and practical safety for both the children and fathers, as well as providing skills in playing with and nurturing children which these fathers may lack. Fathers who are unable to acknowledge the abuse and the damage done remain dangerous to the children and their mothers.

Healing on being made safe should include the following elements:

  • Children of all ages respond to their family environment becoming stable, predictable and secure.
  • They need appropriate and consistent limit setting.
  • They and their mothers need assistance with:
    • Attachment re-building
    • Emotional regulation
    • Re-connection with positive sensations
    • Having age appropriate fun
    • Pro-social connection with community

Through family work and individual counselling, as well as mentoring, activities, sport etc in the community.

This article was kindly provided by Annabel Wyndham, Children’s Counselling ACT.

Annabelle submitted a paper for the 2015 STOP Domestic Violence Conference.

Find out what’s on for the 2017 STOP Domestic Violence Conference here.

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