Help for Families

How family violence affects children

What is family violence?

The term domestic violence has been used for many years and usually refers to the violence that occurs between two people living in a close relationship including spouses, de facto couples, same sex couples, family members or even flat-mates.

It is only relatively recently that it has been recognised that the violence between those two people impacts greatly on other members of the family, household or community – especially children. For this reason we will use the broader term of family violence. Family violence encompasses inter-generational violence and abuse and recognises all victims. It refers to the harm caused when an individual physically or psychologically tries to dominate or control another family member.

Effects of family violence on children

For some New Zealand children, life is like living in a war zone! They live in an environment characterised by fear, frustration, anger, cruelty and violence. Research shows that children of all ages are affected if there is violence or abuse between their caregivers and extended family members.

Children and young people who experience violence in their families and whānau are more likely than children who have not experienced any form of family violence to:
• develop severe behavioural problems
• become violent as adolescents
• continue the cycle of violence.

There are a number of factors shared by children who have been exposed to domestic violence.

They may display failure to thrive symptoms even as infants.
They may be aggressive or violent towards siblings or the victim parent in ways similar to the abusive parent.
They often suffer from low self-esteem.
They may have poor impulse control.
They often experience academic problems.
They can have a disrupted home life when the victim is forced to flee the home.
They are more often abducted by the abuser parent than other children.
They may have a fear and distrust of close relationships.
They don’t always recognise socially acceptable or correct behaviour.
They may experience psychosomatic complaints, such as stomach pains, headaches, stuttering and anxiety.
They may wet the bed.
They kill themselves more often than children who do not live with abuse.
They blame themselves for the violence or their inability to stop it and protect the victim parent.
They are more likely to be victim of child physical and sexual abuse, most often by the abuser parent but sometimes by the victim.
They are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs.
They are more likely to commit sexual assaults and other crimes.

Children will be affected in different ways depending on a number of factors including their age, resilience, amount of support from other family members, predictability of the violence. The following is only a guide as to some ways in which the harm may affect them:

• Poor brain development.
• Poor health and development.
• Poor sleeping patterns.
• Cry and scream more than normal.

• Become very distressed when witnessing violence.
• Be severely shy, have low self esteem.
• Bite, hit, kick, pull other children’s hair.
• Are argumentative.

• Blame themselves for the violence.
• Become very distressed.
• Become very withdrawn.
• Show verbal and physical aggression.

Primary school children
• Begin to learn that violence is a way of resolving conflict.
• Have difficulty at school.
• Have the highest levels of depression and aggression (especially girls).
• Have difficulty concentrating.
• Become rebellious.
• Become anxious and withdrawn.

• Develop other social networks outside of the family.
• Regard the victim of the violence as being responsible.
• Development and future adult behaviour affected.
• Strong possibility of depression (especially girls).
• Become aggressive towards victim or other family members (especially boys).
• Continue cycle of violence.


What to do if you suspect abuse

Children who have been harmed need adults to help.

You can call 0800 456 450 for advice.

In most communities there are child and family services that offer advice and help to people concerned about a child and young person and who will provide help to willing families.

You can look for helpful services on

If the child or young person is in immediate danger call the Police (111) or Child, Youth and Family (CYF) (0508FAMILY).



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