The Impacts of Domestic Violence

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Domestic Violence in Australia

In Australia, as there is a high prevalence of domestic violence at one time or another you may find yourself working with clients who are living with domestic violence or who have done so in the past. A client does not have to present with a physical injury to be abused as abuse can come in many forms. It is important to provide the person with a safe and supportive environment.

The impact of domestic violence on a person

Individuals and families who have experienced domestic violence are in the process of healing both physically and emotionally from multiple traumas. These traumas can have various effects on the mind, body and spirit. It is natural to experience these, and acknowledging the effects can be an important first step in embarking on a process towards restoration. Even though survivors may experience similar types of abuse, the response to trauma varies from person to person. Many factors can influence how a person responds to short and long-term effects of the abuse, such as the frequency of abusive incidents, the degree of severity and the effects on physical health (Briere & Scott, 2012). The overall impact of domestic violence also depends on the individual’s natural reactions to stress and ways of coping with stressful situations. Other factors can include age in which the trauma occurred, previous exposure to unrelated traumatic incidents and extent of therapy or timing of intervention (Laing, 2004; Briere & Scott, 2012).

It’s important to know that the effects of domestic violence can be overwhelming to experience. It’s common for someone in an abusive relationship to not recall many aspects of their personality before being abused, especially if they have been exposed to violence for an extended period of time. Sometimes, it may seem as if the violence defines their identity. However, the effects of domestic violence are possible to overcome, and it is possible to break the cycle of violence. Recovery from exposure to domestic violence is possible, and although it requires addressing painful realities, it also entails discovering new inner strengths, a process that needs time, space and safety to begin (Laing, 2004).

Domestic violence is such an impactful and unfortunately far too prevalent in today’s society. If you would like to learn how to assist those who have suffered from domestic violence then we would recommend studying one of a number of courses with will assist you in being better prepared to comfort those in need. Courses such as the CHC52015 Diploma of Community ServicesCHC50313 Diploma of Child, Youth and Family Intervention or CHC51015 Diploma of Counselling will certainly provide you with a range of skills, knowledge and techniques that you can utilise when confronted by domestic violence clients.

The effects of domestic violence

Abuse significantly impacts the way a person thinks and interacts with the world around them.   Chronic exposure to domestic violence and the stress resulting from this exposure can cause immediate physical injury and mental shifts that occur as the mind attempts to process trauma or protect the body. Domestic violence affects one’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours and can significantly impact one’s mental stability. Increased anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression symptoms are commonly observed among survivors of domestic violence (Laing, 2004).

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that is triggered by a terrifying event. Some common symptoms associated with PTSD are flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety and uncontrollable thoughts about the event. Many people who go through traumatic events have difficulty adjusting and coping for a while. But with time and support, such traumatic reactions usually get better (Briere & Scott, 2012).

Depression can include prolonged sadness, feelings of hopelessness, unexplained crying, changes in appetite with significant weight loss or gain, loss of energy or loss of interest and sleep disturbance. Depression can affect a person’s outlook, which can lead to feelings of hopelessness. This, in turn, can impact his or her thought process and ability to make decisions.  In extreme cases of depression, people may even experience suicidal thoughts and/or attempts.

Dissociation usually refers to feeling like one has “checked out” or is not present. In some instances of dissociation, people may find themselves daydreaming. But in situations where dissociation is chronic and more complex, it may impair an individual’s ability to function in the “real” world, such as not being able to focus on work-related duties or being able to concentrate on schoolwork.

Resilience and vulnerability are largely influenced by one’s family of origin, personality and point of view.  Workers must always meet their client’s experience with empathy and a genuine curiosity and desire to understand their situation (Briere & Scott, 2004).

Domestic Violence on Children

Children who live in homes where there is domestic violence grow up in an environment that is unpredictable, filled with tension and anxiety and dominated by fear. This can lead to significant emotional and psychological trauma. Instead of growing up in an emotionally and physically safe, secure, nurturing and stable environment, these children are forced to predict when it might happen next and try to protect themselves and their siblings. Often getting through each day is the main objective so there is little time left for fun, relaxation or planning for the future.

  • The extent that each child will be impacted varies depending on:
  • The length of time the child was exposed to the domestic violence.
  • The age of the child when the exposure began.
  • Whether the child has also experienced child abuse with the domestic violence.
  • The presence of additional stressors such as poverty, community violence, parental substance abuse or mental illness and disruptions in family life.
  • Whether the child has a secure attachment to a non-abusing parent or other significant adult.
  • Whether the child has a supportive social network.
  • Whether the child has strong cultural identity and ethnic pride.
  • The child’s own positive coping skills and experience of success.
  • Family access to health, education, housing, social services and employment.

Emotional and psychological trauma

Children living with domestic violence suffer emotional and psychological trauma from the impact of living in a household that is dominated by tension and fear. These children will see their mother threatened, humiliated or physically or sexually assaulted. They will overhear conflict and violence and see the aftermath of the violence such as their mother’s injuries and her traumatic response to the violence.  Children also may be used and manipulated by the abuser to hurt their mother.

Risk of physical injury

Children may be caught in the middle of an assault by accident or because the abuser intends it.  Infants can be injured if being held by their mothers when the abuser strikes out. Children may be hurt if struck by a weapon or a thrown object and older children are frequently assaulted when they intervene to defend or protect their mothers.

Violence occurring during or post-separation

There is clear evidence that abusers often increase their use of violence and abuse to stop their partners from leaving, or to force their partners and children to return home following separation. The abuser may attempt to take the children away from their mother to punish the woman for leaving and in some cases, children have even been killed.  The risk to children during and following separation is enormous.

Apart from the emotional, physical, social and behavioural damage abuse creates for children, statistics show that domestic violence can also become a learned behaviour. This means that children may grow up to think it is okay to use violence to get what they want, and as adults that it is okay for there to be violence in their relationships.

Cultural Diversity and Specific Needs

Victims of domestic violence belong to all types of families and come from a wide range of social classes, occupations and ethnicities. Reported incidence is more common in lower socio-economic groups but that may be linked to the ability of victims of higher socio-economic groups to escape domestic violence without reporting to authorities or accessing formal services (Gondolf, 2002).

Counsellors need to demonstrate a high level of sensitivity to client’s specific needs by behaving in ways that promote diversity, respect and inclusive practices.

Specific needs relating to clients can include:

  • Sub-cultural backgrounds.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background.
  • Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) background.
  • Reside in a rural or remote location.
  • Mental health issues.
  • Dual diagnosis (e.g. mental health issue and substance use).
  • Active addiction.
  • Same-sex relationship.
  • Identifies as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgendered (LGBT).
  • Religious and spiritual practices.
  • Gender
  • Age

Diversity can be expressed in a variety of ways including communication style and language, social behaviour, values, relationship expectations, concepts of morality, ethics, the concept of time, power and control, work attitudes, grief and loss, role expectations and lifestyle preference.

In working with the following diverse groups, it may be necessary for a counsellor to consider referral to services that can offer additional resources or support that will facilitate work with the client around domestic violence issues.


People with disability who have experienced domestic or family violence require an understanding of the complexity of their isolation, not only within their relationships but within broader society.  Multiple experiences of abuse in its various forms are likely to impact an individual significantly.  Counsellors who do not have an in-depth understanding of disability and its impact on the individual need to consider referral or accessing assistive devices and technology that will benefit the client.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community

Domestic violence is common in Indigenous communities. A history of violence, such as the forcible removal of Aboriginal children and their treatment is a key factor for the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who experience domestic violence.

Additional factors include:

  • Marginalisation and dispossession.
  • Loss of land and traditional culture.
  • Breakdown of community kinship systems and aboriginal law.
  • Poverty and chronic unemployment.
  • Physical illness.
  • Lack of education.
  • Racism-induced stress.
  • Substance abuse.
  • Poor or inadequate housing.

The following are factors that must be considered when working cross-culturally:

  1. Focus on facts rather than the beliefs, including the frequency, history, level of violence and impact of the violence, to assess the seriousness of the situation.
  2. Be willing to be informed by the client of their cultural understanding of domestic violence and various options.
  3. Challenging abusive behaviour is not the same as challenging someone’s culture.
  4. Be aware of your own cultural attitudes and personal biases.
  5. Be flexible in the support options you offer victims of violence.
  6. Be aware of cultural attitudes and perspectives surrounding family. What appears to you to be lack of action by the victim may, in fact, be a deliberate protection strategy.
  7. Identify services and resources that are culturally appropriate and stress confidentiality and its limitations.

Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) Background

People of different ethnicity and language backgrounds require counsellors who possess cultural awareness and competence.  Counsellors need to be aware of community resources such as language interpreters that may be needed to effectively support the client in processing their experience of violence.

Many women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds who live in Australia and are experiencing domestic violence may not be fully aware of their rights or the law in Australia.  The number of information women may have will vary and may depend on the length of time they have been living in Australia, their comprehension of the English language, whether they have a supportive family or social networks and their level of economic independence.

The domestic violence provisions of Australia’s migration program allow certain people applying for permanent residence in Australia to continue with their application after the breakdown of their spouse or partner relationship. This may occur if they, or a member of their family unit, have experienced domestic violence committed by their spouse or de facto partner. The domestic violence provisions were introduced in response to community concerns that some spouses and partners felt compelled to remain in abusive relationships rather than end the relationship and be forced to leave Australia.

The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered (LGBT) Community

The occurrence and reporting of violence in same-sex relationships and in bisexual and transgendered relationships is increasing.  Counsellors supporting clients who identify as LGBT and have experienced domestic violence, need to have an understanding of the specific issues that oppress this group in our community and the services and resources available.

Interviewing the Client

Conducting a client interview with a person who has experienced domestic violence requires sensitivity and a solid process, whereby respect and emotional safety are prioritised.  Exposure to domestic violence is highly traumatising because of the use of coercion, threat and control.  Therefore, counsellors must be careful to not add further to a client’s distress or trauma.

Assessment should include questions aimed at detecting domestic violence, including verbal and psychological abuse. Direct questioning regarding violence is the most effective assessment tool. Victims report that it is extremely helpful to be asked specifically and directly about violence (Bagshaw et al., 2000). During assessments, it is important to be aware of the tendency of victims to deny or minimise the violence so that their level of risk may not be immediately apparent.

Research has shown that professionals respond to victims with different levels of empathy depending on the type of abuse experienced. Women who have experienced physical abuse tend to receive more empathy than those that have experienced non-physical forms of abuse (Bagshaw et al., 2000).  By asking specific questions about physical and non-physical abuse, the counsellor conveys to the victim their concern for her safety and the belief that all forms of domestic violence are real and serious problems (Geller, 1998).

This article was written by Wendy Webber, the Australis College Head of Faculty for Community Services and Counselling. For more information about our range of courses that could assist in the areas of domestic violence review the following courses  CHC52015 Diploma of Community ServicesCHC50313 Diploma of Child, Youth and Family Intervention or CHC51015 Diploma of Counselling or call 1300 887 991.