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Witnessing Family Violence

When a child is hurt intentionally or when a parent or caregiver fails to protect a child in their care, this is abuse. It is against the law. When children witness violence at home, the effects are comparable to the child being the direct victim of assault. It is a misuse of parental power and can lead to lifelong negative consequences. There are different kinds of child abuse: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect. The abuser can be male or female. Abusive behaviour crosses all economic, social and religious boundaries.


One or two of the warning signs are not necessarily an indication of abuse at home. A child displaying several of these signs should raise suspicions that the child may be experiencing some type of disruption in his life.

Physical indicators in children

  • The child does not meet developmental milestones as expected

  • Failure to thrive – e.g., poor weight gain

  • Often complains of medical ailments, nausea, headaches, stomach aches without any obvious reason.

  • Physical harm, whether deliberate or accidental, during or after a violent episode

  • May suffer serious unintended injuries

  • May exhibit signs and symptoms of post traumatic stress syndrome, e.g., nightmares, hypervigilence.

  • Rigid body when experiencing stress

  • Fussy and distressed

  • Listlessness

  • Always tired

Behavioural indicators in children

  • May be aggressive and have temper tantrums, e.g., destructiveness

  • May exhibit regressive behaviours, e.g., bedwetting

  • May show withdrawn, depressed, and nervous behaviours, e.g., excessive shyness, clinging, whining, excessive crying, excessive separation anxieties

  • Acts out what has been seen or heard between the parents, discloses family violence, may act out sexually

  • Tries too hard to be good and to get adults to approve

  • Afraid of:

    • someone’s anger

    • self or other loved ones being hurt or killed

    • being left alone and not cared for

    • sudden loud noises

  • Problems sleeping, e.g., cannot fall asleep, heightened fear of the dark, resistance to bedtime, nightmares

  • Sleep disturbances/disruption in eating routines

  • Bed-wetting, food-hoarding

  • Tries to hurt oneself, cruel to animals

  • Stays around the house to keep watch, or tries not to spend much time at home, runs away from home

  • Problems with school

  • Expects a lot of oneself and is afraid to fail and so works very hard, perfectionist

  • Overly responsible

  • Takes the job of protecting and helping the mother, siblings

  • Assumes role of parent

  • Does not get along well with other children

  • May begin to develop the belief:

    • that it is all right for men to hit women

    • that violence is a way to win arguments

    • that men are bullies who push women and children around

    • that big people have power they often misuse

    • that women are victims and can’t take care of themselves

  • Scared to explore and play

  • Impulsiveness

  • Attention problems

  • Destruction of property

Behaviours observed in adults

  • Abuser has trouble controlling self

  • Abuser has trouble talking and getting along with others

  • Abuser uses power games

  • Abuser uses threats and violence, e.g., threatens to hurt, kill, or destroy someone or something that is special, cruel to animals, intimidation

  • Forces the child to watch a parent/partner being hurt

  • Abuser is always watching what the partner is doing

  • Abuser insults, blames, and criticizes partner in front of others, distorts reality

  • Abuser instills fear through looks or actions

  • Jealous of partner talking or being with others

  • Abuser does not allow the child or family to talk with or see others

  • The abused person is not able to care properly for the children because of isolation, depression, trying to survive. The abuser uses money to control behaviour and withholds basic needs

  • Holds the belief that the abuser has the power and the partner has to obey

  • Violence is utilized as a way to win, to get what they want - assert power and control

  • Uses drugs or alcohol

  • Discloses family violence

  • Discloses that the abuser assaulted or threw objects at someone holding a child

  • The abused person seems to be frightened, humiliated and full of shame with a heightened sense of powerlessness

  • Inability to take responsibility for their behaviour - blame others

Having concerns related specifically to Abuse?

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