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The Hidden Cost of Family Violence


by Hazel Thompson

‘They didn’t hit us… but every time they hit each other they may as well have picked up a baseball bat and hit us, because every time they hit each other it affected us just as much.’
Jimmy Barnes, RNZ interview 24/9/16, talking about his childhood.

It is extremely distressing for children to see/hear their parents, the people they most love and depend upon, fighting, or more likely, one hurting the other. Children are so highly tuned into and alert to their parents that they always see and hear far more than their parents would ever imagine. Even when they are not in the room, when they are supposed to be asleep, when they are playing outside, when they are ‘too young’ to understand, they will hear. Even very young children who can’t yet talk have a sensory perception to the tension in the environment, to the tone of voices.


When Children Bear Witness to Family Violence

‘Causing a child to witness domestic violence’ is part of the NZ Domestic Violence Act 1995 because it is recognised that experiencing violence directly or as a witness has a harmful and often long lasting effect on children. The nature of domestic violence is that it is repetitive and sustained over time therefore children can live with the effects for long periods, sometimes the duration of their childhoods.
Effects of domestic violence for children can be:
  • fear (sometimes for their lives)
  • reverting to earlier developmental stages such as thumb sucking or bed wetting
  • sleep difficulties and/or nightmares
  • blaming themselves for the abuse
  • becoming withdrawn
  • feeling sad
  • difficulty in concentration
  • acting out
  • being bullied
  • becoming a bully

Children may experience divided loyalties towards their parents and conflicted and contradictory behaviour, for example, sympathy for the victim (women in 89% of cases) and not wanting to leave her alone, wanting to protect her but on the other hand, exhibiting aggressive behaviour towards her, similar to the perpetrator of abuse. With these dichotomies from a young age, ambivalent attachment is likely. Brain development can be affected, with stronger development of the traumatic fight, flight, freeze, part of the brain at the cost of frontal lobe thinking development.

I believe the term ’child witness’ is something of a misnomer. Children are never just passively watching, they are far more engaged. They are watching for signs of tension building (they will become acutely aware of warning signs), they worry about what will happen and wonder if, or assume, it’s their fault. They may also try to deflect the abusers attention, take care of younger siblings or attempt to ‘take on’ the violent person.

I’ve heard such courageous and poignant stories of young children trying to be a referee between their parents, others trying to protect the victim by picking up a child plastic toy like a cricket bat, only to be pushed aside, told to shut up, get out, mocked, shamed, humiliated.

2015 NZ Police Statistics

Attended about 105,000 family violence call outs.
Children are present at about 80% of all incidents in the home.
It’s estimated that only 24% of family violence incidents are reported to the police.
An average of nine children are killed each year as a result of family violence.
As many as 1 in 3 women and 1 in 10 men report experiencing child sexual abuse.
Care and Protection reports requiring further action numbered 45,463 in 2014/15.
Of these, 16,472 led to findings of abuse or neglect.

The Legacy of Childhood Family Violence

There are more programs available now for ‘child witnesses’ but many ‘child witnesses’ who are now adults never did one. They turn up in counselling rooms when their lives are not working and much of what they are experiencing in their current lives is part of a legacy that has its roots in earlier experiences of domestic violence and the destructive ongoing impact of the effects.
Issues for adult survivors can be:
  • anxiety
  • self-doubt
  • low self-esteem
  • depression
  • self-harm
  • self-‘medication’ by alcohol or drugs
  • difficulties with parenting
  • difficulties to maintain relationships
  • struggling with trust.
Some feel like they are simply ‘going crazy’ and others may have found themselves in a domestic violence relationship themselves. Having domestic violence behaviours modelled by children’s first and most influential teachers is one of the strongest determinants of the development of violence in future relationships.


Counselling for Survivors of Family Violence

In counselling, it is often a relief for clients to be able to express events they may not have spoken about before and to see these events in a wider and different context, to review their lives and put the pieces together, to link a cause and effect and come to a compassionate understanding of their own circumstances. To see themselves as a survivor and to acknowledge strategies of resistance and resilience and strength that were usually unidentified prior. To begin to reclaim a life that is more authentically their own. This can be an extremely liberating and healing experience.



SHINE, Safer Homes in NZ everyday. Call free 0508 744 633
Inner City Women’s Group.  P. 09 360 4933
Nadine Burke Harris: TED Talk: How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime.

Article posted 17 May 2017

Hazel Thompson  counselling for domestic violence auckland
Hazel Thompson is a professional counsellor with a private practice in Auckland
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