Overcoming abuse: Here’s how children can be affected by family violence

Click to play video: 'Shelter volunteer shares a message of hope for survivors of violence' Shelter volunteer shares a message of hope for survivors of violence
WATCH: Women's shelter volunteer Chantal Lacoste explains why it's important for survivors of violence to seek help and supports – Apr 9, 2019

This is part three of a series about overcoming abuse. Here’s part one and part two.

She’s a body-image coach, model and speaker, but Chantal Lacoste is also a survivor, passionate about shining a light on family violence after a chaotic and fearful childhood.

“Once I was old enough, I saw the effects that it [violence] has on the children … and saw that it needed to have more awareness,” Lacoste said.

“It’s good to look outside and ask other people for their perspectives, because when you’re in family violence it’s hard to see it.”

Lacoste now uses her voice to advocate for the needs of children who have experienced abuse, as a community co-ordinator for Snowflake Place and a women’s shelter volunteer. She encourages other survivors to seek supports so they can understand the impact of family violence and overcome abuse.

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READ MORE: Overcoming abuse: How to support and respect survivors of family violence

Even when children are not direct targets of horror at home, they can still be harmed by family violence, according to RCMP. When there is intimate partner violence there is often child abuse happening as well, this resource shows.

In a recent family violence profile by Statistics Canada, one-in-10 Canadians stated that, before age 15, they witnessed violence by a parent or guardian against another adult at home. The majority of child witnesses also reported being physically and/or sexually assaulted.

The way family violence affects children depends on the severity and duration of it, said Calgary-based registered psychologist Dr. Kelly Dean Schwartz.

“We want kids to have a secure, trusting, reliable attachment with their primary caregiver. When they see that primary caregiver being victim to or a perpetrator of domestic violence, of course that deeply threatens that attachment.”

Exposure to family violence can lead to the normalization of violence, a report from the Chief Public Health Officer shows.

WATCH: Five signs a child may have been sexually abused

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5 signs a child may have been sexually abused – Mar 5, 2019

When there is a pattern of pretending everything is OK at home, then there’s a blowout of violence and later, if family members justify or rationalize what happened, that becomes a way of confirming what’s normal to children, Schwartz said.

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This can really have an effect during critical periods of development such as early childhood and around puberty age when there are significant windows of change in the brain, Schwartz added.

“If the child is experiencing domestic violence and it’s happening at a time when the brain is most changeable, then as a result that brain is essentially being trained to interpret events like this in somewhat normalizing ways.”

READ MORE: Overcoming abuse: How to find legal help and shelters when leaving family violence

Research shows children who have seen or experienced family violence are at risk of experiencing health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Toxic stress is another side effect that can impact a child’s development, Schwartz said.
“All kids experience stress and, in fact, we want kids to experience healthy levels of stress, but this is not a healthy level.
“This amount of stress goes beyond the capacity of what a child can neurologically, relationally, psychologically handle.”
Stress levels can heighten during violent incidents in which children may referee, distract the offender, take care of their siblings, or seek outside help from police or neighbours, according to the Centre for Children and Families in the Justice System (CCFJS).
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“We’re talking not only things like cardiovascular health, which is related to that toxic stress element but also mental health issues including depression and anxiety,” Schwartz said.

Children who do not blame themselves for the violence and who develop coping strategies, such as reaching out for help, can have the best outcomes after experiencing violence, this report states.

Every child impacted by violence differently

Children in the same family can have dramatically different understandings of what happened in their homes because of role identities formed in childhood that are often carried forward into adulthood, research shows.

These are a few examples of roles played by children in violent families, according to the CCFJS:

Caretaker: The child acts as a parent to siblings and/or the caregiver experiencing violence. They may oversee routines, household responsibilities, help to keep siblings safe during a violent incident and comfort them afterward.

Confidant: The child is privy to the feelings, concerns, and plans of the victim and/or offender. Sometimes they may be used as a messenger between family members. 

Offender’s Ally: The child who is co-opted to help with abuse may be made to say demeaning things or to physically hurt another family member.

Perfect Child: Trying to prevent violence or conflict by excelling in school, never arguing, rebelling, misbehaving, or seeking help with problems.

Referee: A child who mediates and/or tries to keep the peace in their family.

Scapegoat: The child identified as a cause of family problems, blamed for tension between parents or whose behaviour may be used to justify violence.

Children can take on more than one role identity and may use it as a strategy to cope so the role may stick with them for a long time, according to this report. Assessing the role of each child can be helpful when families struggle with the after-effects of violence, even once the offender has left the home.

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Breaking the cycle of family violence

Many adults accused of violence against family members experienced family violence themselves as children, according to this report. In one study conducted on a sample of federal inmates enrolled in a family violence program, more than half reported witnessing some form of violence as children.

READ MORE: For child abuse survivors, it can be tough to overcome trauma. Here are ways to cope

Research shows that offenders will often show or demonstrate, or have had a childhood experience marked with violence, said Kendra Nixon, director of Resolve in Winnipeg. They may have also been physically, emotionally or sexually abused as children.

“When there’s violence in the home, there’s often co-occurring child abuse happening as well,” Nixon said.

In 2014, among approximately 53,600 child and teen victims of violent crime, about 16,300 were victims of family violence perpetrated by a parent, sibling, extended family member or spouse, Statistics Canada data shows. The majority of survivors were exploited by a parent.

“Certainly, children’s exposure to domestic violence when they’re young can be a common predictor of future violence, either as victims or perpetrators, but that’s not always the case,” Nixon said.

“There are many children who are exposed to violence in the home that don’t become victims or perpetrators in their own intimate relationships. In fact, most don’t.”

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WATCH: How a child’s relationship with their mother affects their experience of family violence

Click to play video: 'How a child’s relationship with their mother can help with healing' How a child’s relationship with their mother can help with healing
How a child’s relationship with their mother can help with healing – Apr 11, 2019

Nixon’s research shows children fare best when they have a strong relationship with their mothers, so to prevent the cycle of violence repeating, it’s important to strengthen that relationship.

“A control tactic or a tactic that perpetrators or batterers will use to control or abuse women is undermining their parenting or trying to destroy the relationship between them and their children,” Nixon said.

“If you’re looking at how to support children in their own recovery and healing so they don’t become victims and perpetrators, it’s really important that we’re helping them develop positive relationships and nurturing relationships with their caregivers.”

Having a strong social support network can be another buffer or protective force against future experiences of violence, Nixon said.

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How to help children affected by family violence

School psychologists are now being trained to notice trauma-informed behaviour in children, Schwartz said.

“Educators and school systems are becoming more aware of the issue, becoming more aware of the signs of the domestic violence, and then looking for that in the symptoms of the child.

“A child who we may have suspected was just having trouble paying attention in school, now we’re saying, ‘OK, what’s the cause of this?’ And in a very small number of cases we’re finding out that it is the home situation,” Schwartz said.

READ MORE: Canadians have role to play in trying to prevent domestic violence, experts say

Social and emotional learning programs for schools are currently being researched and designed, Schwartz said, with a focus on what a healthy relationship is and what it looks like.

“So even if they are existing in, or going home to a home situation that’s not safe and not predictable, they are learning about what healthy relationships are, in terms of establishing trust,” Schwartz said.

WATCH: Clinical psychologist describes signs that children are being affected by abusive relationships

Click to play video: 'Clinical psychologist explains how to recognize when children are affected by violence' Clinical psychologist explains how to recognize when children are affected by violence
Clinical psychologist explains how to recognize when children are affected by violence – Apr 11, 2019

Here is a downloadable guide about healthy relationships in both English and French.

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The RCMP also have lesson plans available to teach children about family violence. To learn more about how to keep children safe, the Canadian Centre for Child Protection has a variety of free courses.

These are some of the signs of family violence to watch for in children, highlighted by RCMP.

If a child tells you about abuse or violence, the RCMP suggest you listen openly and calmly, believe the child, reassure them, be supportive and tell the child what happened is not their fault. It can be helpful to write down what the child says, using their exact words, then contact police or a child and family service agency.

If you need help immediately, call 911. If you are hurt, go to the nearest hospital. 


Connect with someone at Crisis Services Canada toll-free at 1-833-456-4566 any time, or text 45645. Here is another list of crisis hotlines you can call.

Kids can text CONNECT to 686868 and reach a crisis responder at Kids Help Phone.

Talk4Healing is a fully confidential helpline for Indigenous women available in 14 languages. Call 1-855-554-HEAL.

Here’s more information about services for abused men.

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Newcomers to Canada, find free services near you here.

This government resource includes family violence supports, along with a list of resource options.

This booklet was put together by survivors of family violence and can help you create a safety plan.

To learn more about family violence and recovery for offenders, here are more government resources.

Find your nearest Canadian Mental Health Association location or learn more about well-being supports across Canada here.

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