We know that every 2 days a woman or girl is killed in Canada, but gender-based violence (GBV) also takes less obvious forms including sexual, emotional and financial abuse. GBV reverberates outwards, affecting many others in a wide web of trauma. Many children who witness violence within their families experience pain and suffering that they may carry with them for the rest of their lives.
Impact of GBV on children who are abused
Among Canadian children, boys are twice as likely to be physically abused, while girls are three times more likely to experience sexual abuse. In cases of serious physical abuse, parents or step-parents were most often the perpetrators (61%). Childhood abuse occurs more frequently to Indigenous girls and to people who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual. When children of abuse grow up, they are more likely to experience violence as adults, more likely to excessively use alcohol and illicit drugs, and they are more likely to experience physical health challenges.
Impact of GBV on children who witness family violence
Children who are not physically harmed themselves also experience a wide range of harmful effects. A child who witnesses family violence learns that their home is not safe and secure, and they are forced to worry about the future for themselves and their loved ones. Children who witness family violence are twice as likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression and anxiety, compared to children who have grown up without violence in their home. Long-term cognitive, behavioural and emotional changes can occur, including insomnia, phobias, aggression, low self-esteem, and impaired problem-solving skills.
After witnessing violence, children sometimes direct their anger towards their abused mothers. Having experienced trauma herself, a mother may struggle to be emotionally available to her child through no fault of her own. In fact, contrary to what we might imagine, a common defense mechanism in children who have witnessed abuse is to identify with their abuser. Children may also experience an increase in separation anxiety, particularly if their father has been incarcerated. Sometimes, the cycle of violence continues as children may learn that violence is a way to deal with problems. These coping mechanisms help the child through their acute pain but can be maladaptive in the long-term.
What can be done to help improve the lives of children who have witnessed violence in the family? Specialized child-parent psychotherapy (CPP) can help to mitigate the long-term damage created by witnessing family violence. CPP helps to heal conflict between parent and child and helps the mother to support the child’s healthy development. Research shows that CPP significantly improves outcomes for children, in particular, by reducing PTSD and depression symptoms. Other protective factors for children include social competence and a network of supportive adults.
Intergenerational trauma refers to the way that the traumatic effects of a violent event can be passed down through the generations of a family. “We inherit pain,” Merissa Nathan Gerson says. “When it’s not coped with, it gets passed again”. Coping mechanisms can be passed along to children and grandchildren, becoming a family legacy of sorts. Often the effects are passed down without mention and can be normalized within a family. Research has found that trauma can be passed down in many ways, including modifications to DNA, changes in utero, dominant family narratives, or by the normalization of cruelty and dehumanization. Families may experience distance, disconnection, and detachment. The past lives in our children’s bodies and minds. Intergenerational trauma can be healed in many ways, including forms of therapy such as Somatic Therapy, Internal Family Systems, and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR). The cycle can be stopped. The work that we do at Shelter Movers is one small but significant step in this process. It impacts many lives, rippling out to the families, friends, and the children of those we serve.
- Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868
- Available to young Canadians between 5 to 29 years old who are seeking 24-hour confidential care with professional counselors.
- Childhelp National Child Abuse 24/7 Hotline: 1-800-422-4453
- Provides help with finding the contact information for the child protection service in your area.
- Family and Child Services of the Waterloo Region: 519-576-0540
- Provides services for families including a Sexual Abuse Treatment Program and Intimate Partner Violence Treatment Groups.
For further reading on help available to young witnesses of family violence, please see:
Don’t Hit My Mommy! A Manual for Child-Parent Psychotherapy with Young Witnesses of Family Violence (2nd ed.) (2016). Alicia Lieberman, Chandra Ghosh Ippen, and Patricia Van Horn.
Children Who See Too Much: Lessons from the Child Witness to Violence Project. (2003). Betsy McAlister Groves.
Alicia Lieberman and R. De Martino. (2006). Johnson & Johnson Pediatric Institute.
- Ryder and T. White. (April 15, 2022).