The mental health impacts of domestic violence on children and why they need support

May 19, 2022

When we think of domestic violence, most of us think of a man abusing a woman. However, few of us think about the children witnessing or experiencing domestic violence and the repercussions this can have. This is known as vicarious trauma and those hearing, witnessing or being aware of impending domestic violence can often be unaware that they have been deeply affected.

Children deserve to grow up in a loving, nurturing environment without fear. Yet, many children are exposed to domestic violence in the home from a parent or step-parent. Research shows that one in four children in Australia are exposed to domestic violence. “It’s a staggering number and without help and support to resolve their trauma it can affect these children for the rest of their lives,” says Diane Young, senior therapist and trauma specialist at South Pacific Private

Witnessing violence as a child is extremely traumatic at the time, but the trauma can also raise the risk of depression and other mental health problems, new research has found. The study discovered that of children who were exposed to chronic parental domestic violence, 22.5 per cent had major depression at some point in their life, 15 per cent had an anxiety disorder and nearly 27 per cent had a substance abuse disorder.

“Whether physical, verbal or emotional, witnessing or experiencing domestic violence as a child is very traumatic and can impact someone’s life well into adulthood,” explains Young.

Children exposed to violence in the home during their developmental years are especially vulnerable. “It can lead to profound impacts on their physical, psychological and emotional health and wellbeing. It can also impact their brain development, socialisation skills, their sense of worth, how much fear and anxiety they live with, and of course, as a result, their self-esteem,” adds Young.

According to Young, children who witness or experience domestic violence may feel like they’re in a constant state of fight, flight, freeze, or fawn both as a young person and as an adult. “They may live in fear and/or develop anxiety. We also know that they are more likely to develop depression and abuse drugs – it’s a coping mechanism for the traumatic experience,” she adds. 

Young says that child survivors of domestic violence are also more likely to form trauma bonds years later. “These occur when a survivor bonds with someone who is destructive to them. Survivors, as a result of trauma bonding, unknowingly recreate relationships that continue the cycle.”

This is why it’s important to deal with the unresolved trauma from domestic violence by seeking professional help. Each child responds differently to trauma and domestic violence and every situation is different. Some children are more resilient, and some are more sensitive, but the long-term effects can be significant if the trauma is suppressed or ignored.

At South Pacific Private, we take a comprehensive and holistic approach to the treatment of trauma, recognising that it can often be a fundamental driver of unhealthy addictions, behaviours and mental health issues. We pride ourselves on being a trauma-informed facility that can help adults deal with childhood trauma and address the underlying causes of trauma bonding. In a safe environment, clients are gently guided to look at their histories and their family system, as well as any more recent traumatic events. This allows the client to investigate when and how the trauma has affected them. We then provide clients with useful tools and strategies to help manage the symptoms and to repair impacted relationships.

If you or someone you know needs help in addressing trauma, call us on 1800 063 332 or contact us here to see which of our programs are right for you.

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