By Child and Youth Health
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Arguments in families are pretty common, but sometimes they get out of hand and people get hurt. Domestic violence happens in all sorts of families and plays a major part in family breakdown.

The basics

Most people argue with other members of their family from time to time. Parents might argue about money, their children and household jobs. Children fight about any number of things.

Sometimes arguments in families get out of hand and people get hurt. When this happens between adults, it affects everyone, especially the children. Domestic violence happens in all sorts of families and plays a major part in the breakdown of families.

Most people don’t want to think that what happens in their family is ‘domestic violence’. It’s hard to talk about, and people might ignore or even deny it’s happening. Many people find that talking about it, even to their closest friends, is something they can’t do, or feel they shouldn’t do.

Unfortunately, domestic violence hardly ever goes away by itself. It usually gets worse over time unless real changes in attitude and behaviour are made.

There is never any excuse for bullying, abuse or violence. If you think you could be a danger to your family, leave until you’re calm. If you think you or your children are in immediate danger, leave or call the police (in Australia dial 000). If you want to talk to someone and don’t know what to do, call your local Domestic Violence Crisis Service or your local Community Health Centre.

What is domestic violence?

When most of us think of domestic violence, we think of hitting. This is certainly part of it. In general, abuse or violence happens when people use their power to hurt, control or bully someone else. This can be done with words or with actions.

Domestic violence is what happens when one partner is hurt physically or emotionally, and they fear it will happen again.

Here are some other key points about domestic violence:

  • Domestic violence happens in relationships between couples who are going out together, living together, married, separated or divorced.
  • It happens between men and women, and in same sex relationships.
  • People from both sexes can be abusive or violent. 
  • People who are abusive tend to ‘play down’ what they do, while those on the receiving end tend to blame themselves or ‘play down’ the effect of what has happened.
  • Unfortunately, some people accept violence and abuse as a part of relationships.

Arguing is not domestic violence
Arguing, or telling someone that you disagree with them, or even feeling and expressing your anger, is a necessary part of relationships. Arguing can be done without anyone being hurt, and is one of the ways adults manage their differences and sort out problems.

Children learn about relationships and how to manage a disagreement by watching how adults do this, particularly their parents.

One of the most important things you can do for your children is to show that you can disagree about things and not get violent and still respect and care for the other person.

Why it happens

It might be hard to understand why people could deliberately hurt others, especially those they say they love.

Many different things can lead to domestic violence. For example, some people:

  • are stronger, bigger, louder and have more authority or control than others, and might think they have more right than others to get their own way
  • don’t have the skills to deal with the stresses of life or know how to handle their feelings. They might get frustrated and angry and ‘take it out’ on others
  • might be jealous and believe they have the right to control the behaviour of their partner
  • see their partner as someone they ‘own’ and believe they can treat them as they like
  • grow up in families where abuse and violence was learnt as a way for people to deal with their differences, or to get what they want. They might not know other ways of behaving.

How it starts

In some families, disagreements and arguments can end in domestic violence. This happens when people believe they know best, that they have a right to try and make everyone do what they want, and insist on having their own way no matter what it takes. Sometimes drugs and alcohol can play a part, although they are never an excuse.

There’s a common pattern to this abuse and violence, sometimes called the ‘cycle of violence’. This cycle often gets worse over time and occurs more often. It doesn’t usually go away by itself.

Build-up
This is the time when a person begins to feel irritated and annoyed. The person might believe their partner is pushing them even though the partner might actually be trying very hard to ‘keep the peace’. As these feelings become more intense, the person might get more verbally abusive and threatening. 

Build-up leads to an explosion sooner or later if nothing is done to deal with the feelings. This build-up can take weeks, days or only minutes.

Explosion
This is the time when a partner can get physically hurt if force is used. This can include pushing, shoving or beatings that can leave bruises or broken bones. There can be yelling, cruel language or threats made. 

Violence at this point can be life-threatening.

Feeling sorry
Sometimes afterwards the person might say sorry. The person might act helpless and guilty. They might promise they’ll never do it again, and talk about how much they love their partner. 

Some don’t see themselves as responsible for what’s happened. They might blame the partner, alcohol or drugs, or brush it off as not being important. Some might deny that anything happened at all.

False honeymoon
The violent person might try to make up for the behaviour by buying gifts, fixing things around the house and generally trying to please their partner. 

This might be a relief, as things between the couple might seem better than they have for a long time. But unless they follow promises through with changes to their behaviour, it’s likely the pattern will start again.

Effects of domestic violence

Effects on family life
Domestic violence can result in family members not feeling safe, and not trusting or feeling supported by others within the family. There can be a loss of confidence or low self-esteem in family members. It might also end in a separation or divorce.

Effects on the parents
The partner who is abused might feel:

  • intimidated, stressed, anxious, shamed, guilty, depressed and very alone
  • less able to cope with parenting 
  • less able to cope with life.

The partner who abuses might feel:

  • frustrated
  • strong anger that’s hard to control 
  • unappreciated by the family 
  • less able to parent well
  • very alone.

Effects on children
Living with domestic violence affects children, both physically and emotionally. How badly they are affected will depend on their age, how long the violence has been happening and what happens. It can be hard for children to cope with the seesawing feelings at home as the pattern continues. Children often live in a constant state of anticipation, waiting for it to happen again.

The effects on children can include feelings of fear, mistrust, shame, anger, helplessness, low self-esteem and depression. Children might show signs of stress, such as headaches, stomach aches, sleeping problems, nightmares and bed-wetting.

Children in these situations might start believing that violence in families is normal, and that the only way to get what you want is by using violence. They can learn that it’s OK to be violent or to be abused.

Other effects and signs include:

  • missing school to stay near a parent who is hurt 
  • running away from home 
  • using drugs and alcohol 
  • aggressive language and behaviour 
  • poor school performance 
  • not having friends
  • withdrawing from family activities.

Note: there might be other reasons for these behaviours in children.

What parents can do

If domestic violence is happening in your home, you need to get help.

The partner who abuses
If you bully or abuse your partner, or find it hard to control your anger, you can learn ways other than using violence and abuse to deal with your feelings. Talk to someone who understands the problem of domestic violence or phone a domestic violence helpline.

If you think you could be a danger to your family, leave until you have calmed down.

The partner who is abused
You have a right to be safe. You are not responsible for this violence and abuse. If you or your children are in immediate danger, call the police on 000 (in Australia).

If you’re scared or living in fear of your partner, it’s important to consider your safety and the safety of your children. Your children need to understand that violent behaviour is never acceptable.

Some time away from your partner can help you see things more clearly.

Talking to someone who understands these kinds of problems can help you sort out what to do.

How to help your children
Children need:

  • protection from physical, emotional and verbal abuse 
  • to know that bullying, abuse and violence is not OK
  • encouragement to talk about their feelings and worries 
  • extra support from a trusted adult 
  • support with schooling 
  • professional help if they show signs of behavioural or emotional problems 
  • to be reassured it isn’t their fault 
  • to be reassured they’re loved
  • to know where they can get help in an emergency (dial 000 in Australia) or contact police or Kids Helpline.
The Line campaign, run by the Australian Government Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, aims to help teenagers and young adults through difficult times in their lives, including domestic violence. For more information and help, you could also visit the Reach Out domestic violence webpage

Reminders

  • Everyone has the right to be safe. 
  • There’s never any excuse for bullying, abuse and violence. 
  • Abuse, bullying and violent behaviour often becomes a pattern of behaviour. 
  • Children suffer in an environment with domestic violence. 
  • People who are abusive or bully others can learn to behave differently. 
  • If you handle arguments without using abuse and violence, your children can learn to do the same. 
  • If you’re concerned about the effects of your behaviour on your family, or are frightened by your partner’s behaviour, get professional help and advice. Don’t wait in the hope that it will go away.

Books

There are many books available that examine domestic violence, its origins and its impact on families and children. Two texts you might find useful are:

  • Osofsky, Joy (Ed.) (1998). Children in a Violent Society. The Guilford Press.
  • Berry, Dawn Bradley (2000). The Domestic Violence Sourcebook. McGraw Hill.