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Children and young people who live with violence and harm happening in their family or whānau face many challenges and risks. Not all children and young people are affected in the same way, but family violence and harm situations are always frightening and distressing for them. The greater and more frequent it is, the greater the negative effects will be. For some it can be deeply traumatic.
What are they dealing with?
A child or young person may:
- see or hear people they love fighting, crying, yelling, or being hurt and abused in front of them
- see the consequences of harm done, such as injuries, damage, ongoing fear and tension, and the efforts to hide or deny what’s happened
- be affected during pregnancy, if they are injured or their mother is extremely stressed
- be directly harmed – injured, verbally bullied, abused, intimidated, or neglected
- possibly be used by an abusive family member to manipulate others, such as criticising the other parent to them, or using them to find out information about that parent
- feel caught in the middle of two people they love and are closely connected to.
They know what's going on
However well a parent tries to hide the harm and protect their children, they can sense the tensions and see the results.
They can’t feel safe if family or whānau members are being hurt
They will feel worried and uncertain about what to expect next. The unpredictability means they live with high levels of ongoing stress and anxiety. This can threaten their health and wellbeing. There is a high risk that it will slow down their normal physical, emotional, and social development.
They may be unwilling to tell you how they are coping. Some might not have the words or language to express their fears and worries. Some may want to please both their parents or caregivers and don’t know what to do, especially if one parent is trying to influence them against the other parent.
Watching for changed behaviour and physical symptoms can alert you to the stress they are living with.
Common effects include:
- frightened or traumatised by incidents
- ongoing worry, anxiety, stress
- physical reactions e.g. stomach aches, headaches, body aching, rashes, existing health conditions may get worse, changes in eating, difficulty with sleeping, toileting problems, bedwetting
- more silent, withdrawn
- sad, depressed
- blaming themselves, feeling guilty, or blaming others
- behaving extremely well to avoid adults getting angry
- less confidence, lower self-esteem
- trying to protect others from harm, may put themselves in danger
- difficulty concentrating, distracted, finding school work harder
- more absent from school, may withdraw from teams and groups
- less trusting of others
- difficulty keeping up positive relationships
- increased irritability and anger, more tantrums or acting out
- being aggressive or violent to others, because they’ve learned this as normal behaviour in their family
- older children and young people may develop risk-taking behaviours, including abusing alcohol or drugs, or self harm, as ways to cope with their internal stress.
Even babies and toddlers become distressed when they sense or witness conflict. They can become fretful and clingy. Normal developmental milestones can be delayed.
The good news
When children and young people are given warm and caring love, support, and safety, they can begin to heal and recover from the effects of family violence and harm.
How can I support them best?
The following boxes contain a range of ideas.
Their safety and yours is the number one priority. Take the necessary steps to keep them as protected.
(* If you are concerned that you may have been harming your child or young person , you can ask for support to change your behaviour. Phone 0800 456 450 for information about local help available to you. This information and support line is provided by the Are You Okay organisation.)
Build them up. Be kind. Encourage them. Reassure them. Include them in things.
Depending on their age, talk about what’s been happening. Let them know it’s okay to be honest about it.
- Keep it simple. Use words they understand.
- Let them talk if they want to. Listen well. Let them ask questions they have.
- Check what worries them the most. Reassure them. Comfort them.
- If they’d rather talk to a different adult instead, like and aunt or uncle, a grandparent, teacher, or school counsellor, don’t be offended. They might be trying not to hurt or upset you. Let them know that’s okay. Think together about caring adults around them who they could talk with. (See also the kids’ and youth crisis lines listed below.)
Explain it’s normal to have mixed up feelings when the person who has done this harm is someone we know and love in our own family or whānau. Try not to speak negatively about that person but instead explain that their violence and abuse is never okay and that they are the only one who is to blame for what has happened.
Without always meaning to, parents and caregivers can sometimes put onto their children and young people’s shoulders the weight of their own adult issues. Instead of telling them about every issue, including your opinions of the other person involved, find other people you can talk to about your situation. If your children or young people start to take on adult responsibilities, remind them that you and other caring adults can be the responsible ones.
Ask what helps them feel safe? When they next feel unsafe at home, what can they do? Where could they go?
Teach them how to contact family, whānau, friends, or neighbours who can give them a safe place.
Explain how to call 111 in an emergency and what to say. Teach them to say their address. Practice saying it.
Maybe have a code word to use to tell them that they need to leave now.
Speak to their teacher and school if you think this would increase their safety. It can also give them trusted adults they can talk to at school if they ever need to. (See Make a Safety Plan )
Look for opportunities when they can make their own choices about things, even simple things, like what to wear, what to have for lunch, or which movie they could watch. This helps them feel more in control when so much else may feel out of their control. Talk together about any important decisions that will affect them.
Talk about helpful and safe ways to let out our strong thoughts and feelings.
Make each day as normal and predictable for them as possible. This can help a lot when so much else is uncertain or may have changed.
Keep building up your bond with them. Enjoy some good times together. Having a strong, positive, trustworthy relationship with trustworthy adults will help them.
Give them opportunities to be with caring family, whānau, and friends. Encourage them to keep connected to their school and any other cultural, faith, sports, or social organisations they have positive links with.
Avoid focusing just on the problems. Instead, help them notice the good things to be grateful for. Speak positively about the future. Plan some things they can look forward to.
If they show bullying or aggressive behaviour towards others, remind them of this. Seek advice and help from their teacher and school and/or a support agency so you can deal with this straight away.
If their health, wellbeing, or behaviour is worrying you, reach out to a support agency, your doctor, a counsellor, your child’s school, or others you trust,
If your child is a teenager, let them know about the support options available to them. First encourage them to find support for themselves.
You don’t need to do this alone. See the specialised support services listed here. Look after yourself well. Your own health and well-being matters too.
What’s Up 0800 942 8787 (0800 WHATSUP) for 5-18 year olds
or webchat available 5pm – 10pm
Kidsline 0800 543 754 (0800 KIDSLINE) for young people up to 18 years
Youthline 0800 376 633, free text 234, email firstname.lastname@example.org for young people and their parents, family, whānau, and friends
or webchat available 7pm – 11pm
Other helpful websites and information
What Family violence and harm involves (Plunket)
Safer Homes Booklet (Shine)
Keeping Kids Safe and Secure (Are you okay?)
Parenting through a break-up (Ministry of Justice)
Understanding Parental Alienation (when one parent influences a child/teen against the other parent) (The Family Matters Centre)