Domestic violence is a frequently discussed subject in the media and courts. It is, unfortunately, something that occurs in many households, whether it happens for the first time around separation or has been a longstanding and constant issue within the household, and often there is little or no documented proof that it has occurred.
Although a child may not be physically impacted, the ongoing effects of domestic violence occurring in the household can become very entrenched in children and difficult to treat. In these situations, it is important to take note of the following issues in order to best assist the child and address their needs:
- Was the child present at the time of the violence occurring?
Often this question is asked as if to confine the impact of the violence to a certain time. However, the impact may be more widespread. The fact that a parent is experiencing domestic violence may alter the way that parent manages parenting in the future, manages the everyday necessities such as purchasing food for the family or running the household, works or studies, and this can all impact severely on the child. The child may also be around a parent who is upset, concerned, worried or not themselves, and trying to change their behaviour so that future violence is less likely to occur.
- Has the child seen or heard violence against other family members?
Often a child may be “spared” the physical or emotional violence that other family members are subjected to. This can include parents, siblings or other relatives. The impact can be similar to that above, with resultant behaviour often being seen by children not acknowledging that domestic violence has occurred, ignoring the domestic violence, putting themselves in harm’s way trying to stop the violence, or being emotionally compromised by not stepping in to stop the violence. It is a situation where a child has no way out; they are in a difficult situation no matter what they choose to do.
- What has the child seen or heard?
Where a child has been present, seen or heard the violence, and been exposed to anger or dangerous management of emotions, they may feel that they need to try to protect the parent who is subjected to the violence or have ongoing emotional issues due to not being able to protect their parent.
- Is the child being used as leverage in a family law matter?
On some occasions, a parent perpetrating domestic violence may wish to seek time with the child in the full knowledge that it will negatively impact the ability of the other parent to work in a co-parenting relationship, which, in turn, will also impact on the child. Alternatively, a parent experiencing domestic violence may seek to not allow the child to spend time with the parent perpetrating the violence, however, often this will not work because that parent will allege the action is being taken to alienate rather than actively protect the child. In these situations, the issue will often need to be argued before the court, and can impact the child if the wrong decision is made in respect of the protections around a child’s time with either parent.
- What role modelling of behaviour is occurring and is that appropriate for the child?
A child exposed to domestic violence is learning from both the person committing the domestic violence and the one experiencing the violence. Are these behaviours the ones we would want our children to learn? Usually the answer to this is no, from both role models involved.
So, what can be done to best protect the child moving forward:
- If you are experiencing domestic violence – seek help. Speak to a psychologist or counsellor, or call a specialised agency such as the Domestic Violence Action Centre.
- If you are the perpetrator of domestic violence – seek help. This can include through programs such as the Men’s Behaviour Change program, run by the Domestic Violence Action Centre and highly regarded as offering tools and techniques to take the appropriate step away from using violence.
- Tell your solicitor. Often people are embarrassed about domestic violence, yet family lawyers see clients in similar situations all the time, and can often only fully assist if told what is happening.
- If your child would benefit from psychological help, talk to your child’s doctor about a mental health care plan (through Medicare) or obtain other assistance from a suitably trained counsellor for the child.