Almost 9 in 10 young Australians who use family violence experienced child abuse: new research

·5-min read

How prevalent is young people’s use of family violence in Australia, what form does it take and how does it intersect with experiences of child abuse? These were the key questions we set out to investigate in our new study, which is the first of its kind in Australia.

Funded by Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety, we surveyed 5,000 young people aged 16-20.

The results provide the most in-depth capture of the complex nature of young people’s use and experiences of family violence in Australia to date.

We found one in five young people we surveyed reported using family violence.

We also found it was very common for young people who had used family violence to have experienced family violence themselves – at least 89% of young people in our study who had used family violence reported experiencing child abuse.

Adolescent family violence in Australia

There is increasing recognition of the prevalence and harms of adolescent family violence.

This refers to the use of family violence (including physical, emotional, psychological, verbal, financial and /or sexual abuse) by a young person against their parent, carer, sibling or other family member within the home.

Family violence used by adolescents has often been recognised and responded to as a distinct form of family violence.

Our study shows why it must be understood as part of intergenerational experiences of family violence.

The nature of young people’s use of family violence

Among the respondents who reported using family violence, the most common forms of family violence reported were verbal abuse (15%), physical violence (10%) and emotional/psychological abuse (5%).

Siblings and mothers were most at risk of being victims of adolescent family violence. Around 51% of the young people who had used violence in the home had done so against their mother, while 68% had used violence against a sibling (including step-siblings).

Young people with a disability, and young people who identified as having a diverse gender and/or sexual identity, were more likely to use family violence. They were also more likely to have been subjected to violence in the home.

This finding is critical, as it demonstrates the need for a suite of tailored and individualised responses for children and young people.

‘I didn’t know how to break the cycle’

Our study shows that young people who use family violence have often experienced child abuse themselves.

As an 18-year-old female in our study reflected:

My own behaviour felt like a mirror of the behaviour I experienced which I hated but I didn’t know how to break the cycle because regardless of how I changed my behaviour, I still experienced the same abuse.

89% of young people surveyed who had used family violence at least episodically reported previous experiences of child abuse. This increased to 96% among young people who reported frequent use of family violence against one or more family members.

Read more: Abused by our grown-up children: mothers open up about this little-understood form of domestic violence

Our study defined child abuse in two ways: witnessing violence between other family members, and being directly subjected to abuse.

Young people who had both witnessed violence between other family members, and had been directly subjected to abuse, were more than nine times more likely to use violence in the home than respondents who hadn’t experienced any child abuse.

We also found these young people were:

  • 2.7 times more likely to use violence in the home than respondents who had witnessed abuse between other family members (but not been subjected to targeted abuse)

  • and 2.3 times more likely to use violence in the home than respondents who had been subjected to targeted abuse perpetrated by family members (but not witnessed violence).

The survey invited young people to provide details on the factors they felt had led to their use of family violence. Our analysis found many young people attributed their use of violence to “retaliation”. For example, 93% of young people whose siblings had been violent towards them had in turn used violence against their siblings.

These findings highlight the complex nature of family violence experienced by young people. We emphasise the need to view children and young people as victim-survivors in their own right when trying to understand and respond to their use of family violence.

Significant impacts

Children and young people reported family violence had extensive impacts on all aspects of their lives.

Young people described the physical impacts of abuse, as well as the profound impacts on their emotional and social wellbeing, and their engagement with school.

One 20-year-old male explained:

My life is ruined, and I’m confused […] Nothing makes sense, I don’t know what’s going, I feel really bad, I hate everything. Sorry […] my life is pointless.

Many young people in our study struggled to make sense of their experiences of family violence along with their own use of violence in the home, often in retaliation, self-defence or as a learned pattern of behaviour.

Child-centred early interventions

Of the young people who were able to provide the age when they had started to use violence against family members (60%), 42% were ten years old or younger.

Recognising the substantial overlap with childhood experiences of family violence and other forms of abuse, these findings highlight the critical need to ensure availability of, and access to, child-centred early interventions for young Australians who experience family violence in early childhood.

Responses to these complex experiences require a trauma-informed lens, which recognises young people’s behaviours in the context of their experiences of abuse.

Trauma-informed and age appropriate supports should be integrated into schools, specialist domestic violence and family service providers, and across the health system. These supports should be designed to meet short- and long-term recovery needs.

Since 2016, when the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence described children as the “silent victims” of family violence, there have been calls to strengthen interventions and recovery support for children as victim-survivors in their own right.

Our study repeats that call, providing a significant evidence base from which Australian policymakers and service providers can better understand the complexity of children and young people’s experiences of family violence.

This research highlights the need to respond to victim-survivors of family violence holistically, ensuring recovery support to mothers and children as the primary victim-survivors of family violence.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Kate Fitz-Gibbon, Monash University and Silke Meyer, Griffith University.

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Kate currently receives funding for family violence related research from the Australian Research Council, Australian Institute of Criminology, Australia's National Research Organisation for Women's Safety, the Victorian Government and the Department of Social Services. This piece is written by Kate Fitz-Gibbon in her capacity as Director of the Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre and are wholly independent of Kate Fitz-Gibbon’s role as Chair of Respect Victoria.

Silke Meyer currently receives funding for family violence and child protection related research from the Australian Research Organisation for Women's Safety, the Australian Institute of Criminology and the Department for Children, Youth Justice and Multicultural Affairs.