Looking at the child: The invisible scars of domestic and family violence
In this feature article, Jodi Dorney (EdD Candidate, CQ University) explores the impact of domestic and family violence and abuse on young children. If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse or violence contact the National Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Counselling service on 1800 737 732. Alternatively, you can call lifeline on 131114.
Some scholars argue that the family home is the most dangerous place for women and children . Whilst it can at times be easy to identify a child who is a victim of physical abuse, it is more difficult to identify the child who does not present with the external signs and symptoms, but rather suffers due to witnessing their parent – usually the mother – being abused in the ‘safety’ of the family home.
But how is a child a victim if they are not touched, pushed, or hit?
The rate of women experiencing abuse and violence in the family environment is estimated to be one in three globally and homicides perpetrated by a current or former male intimate partner account for approximately 38% of all global homicides against women, a figure that continues to rise[4, 5]. We see or read these stories way too often, with an average of one woman dying every week at the hands of an intimate partner in Australia.
It is estimated that one in four children under five years of age live in a family environment where the mother is a victim of intimate partner violence, and whilst many of these children do not suffer direct physical abuse at the hands of the offender, they are witness to often horrific and violent physical attacks on their mother. They may also be witness to their mother being emotionally abused and/or psychologically abused. Emotional abuse is aimed at affecting the person’s feelings, while psychological abuse often involves frightening, isolating and/or controlling someone, consequently impacting their mental health.
Research identified indirect experiences of domestic and family violence can result in negative psychological, physical, and behavioural impacts [6, 7, 8] on the child, and negative effects on their cognitive development  , and social and emotional development and functioning [5, 8, 10, 11].
Also, much evidence suggests that because a child usually experiences recurrent exposure to domestic and family violence, often they develop cognitive and behavioural schemas over time related to their gender, such as devaluing their own worth, lack of confidence in adults as protectors, and they may believe that abuse and violence within in the family context is a normal experience for girls  and abusive behaviours are normal for boys, which explains the intergenerational transmission effect over generations.
Children learn about emotions primarily from parents and others within the family; however, children living in an abusive and violent family context may be deprived of positive emotional engagement with their parents. Research suggests mothers who are victims of domestic and family violence can suffer from symptoms of anxiety and depression, and may be inattentive, unresponsive, and demonstrate a lack of interest toward their child resulting in insecure attachment [11, 12], impacting the child’s opportunity to learn skills to manage, identify, and express personal emotions [9, 13].
The sometimes erratic, aggressive, and explosive externalising behaviour of a child (usually a boy, because girls usually adopt an internalised victim-mentality) who has been exposed to abuse and violence in the family environment can hinder opportunities for the child to engage in positive social interactions with friends and adults . Furthermore, unstable, unpredictable, and fractured connections between the child and parents within a violent environment can promote a lack of trust, safety, and security within the child and a failure to acquire and learn fundamental social skills .
Early childhood is a crucial time for a child’s language development too, as language skills allow a child to communicate and connect with others, and these interactions promote the development of cognitive skills .
Family environments lacking in stimulation also have the potential of inhibiting the brain to develop to its full potential  . Suffering stress within an abusive and violent family environment has been identified as a potential precursor to diminished cognitive development as it can impair the young child’s brain . Children living with domestic and family violence often experience fear and subsequently suffer chronic stress , and it has been identified that children who experience stress and constant anxiety may have cognitive difficulties such as thinking clearly enough to problem solve and reason, and may have difficulty sustaining attention, resulting in the inability to acquire new skills or new information , which can result in educational deficits.
As many people may not be aware that witnessing domestic and family violence as a young child can have such detrimental effects on a child’s development and wellbeing, and with 2020 being a year where rates of domestic and family violence have reportedly increased , it is crucial that as educators we engage in the sometimes uncomfortable and confronting conversations about the visible and invisible effects of domestic and family violence with others, including peers and parents.
The focus of my current research is on the impact of intrafamilial violence on children in early childhood, and through exploring early childhood educators’ knowledge regarding the impact of exposure to intrafamilial violence on a developing child, I aim to develop a professional teaching resource prototype that supports early childhood educators to effectively identify, respond to, and support children impacted by intrafamilial violence.
It is essential that we advocate for and be aware of all children impacted by domestic and family violence, directly and/or indirectly and keep their safety and wellbeing at the forefront of our endeavours.
Jodi Dorney is an early childhood educator from Victoria, currently completing her Doctor of Education at CQUniversity. Her interest and advocacy for children impacted by intrafamilial violence results from many years working in various early childhood education settings.
 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2018). Gender-related killing of women and girls. https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/GSH2018/GSH18_Gender-related_killing_of_women_and_girls.pdf
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