Until recently, children who witness abuse and violence (child witnesses) have remained the silent, forgotten or unintended victims of family violence. Witnessing violence can have serious negative impacts on children’s emotional, social, cognitive, physical and behavioural development.


  • Each year in Saskatchewan approximately 24,000 children will be exposed to male violence against their mothers in their own homes.
  • Children are present in 80% of assaults and 1/3 of children are assaulted by the abuser.
  • Children exposed to violence have similar adjustment problems as children who have experienced physical abuse.
  • 32% of children who witness violence at home are reported to have high aggressive behaviour compared to 16% of children who haven’t.
  • Serious behaviour problems are 17 times higher for boys and 10 times higher for girls who have witnessed violence than for children who have not.
  • Children who have witnessed abuse rate significantly below their peers in areas such as school performance, participation in organized sports and activities, and social involvement.
  • Between 40% and 60% of assaultive men witnessed abuse during their childhood, showing that abuse will continue through generations if it is not stopped.

What is Normal?

Imagine families as a mobile hanging in your living room. Each piece of the mobile should hang in harmony and balance with one another. Imagine that each individual member of a family represents one piece of the mobile. Every piece of the mobile seems to be its own piece; however, changes with one piece affect the balance of the entire mobile. These changes must be settled in order for the mobile to hang with perfect harmony and balance.

Characteristics of a functional family include:

  • Each person feels safe, with proper food, medical care, and education;
  • Each member feels they belong;
  • Each member feels worth;
  • Each member gets to be separate;
  • Each member gets to make mistakes without being shamed;
  • Each member gets to be playful and have fun.

In functional families, members feel open to express their feelings in appropriate ways. For example, family members can display anger by saying “I’m really upset about…” without screaming. When there is conflict, it gets negotiated and resolved. Rules may be laid out for fair fighting, and individual differences are accepted and respected.

How Children Feel When Abuse is Occurring Between Parents:

  • Guilty, sad or depressed believing that they are somehow responsible for the abuse.
  • Powerless and helpless because they feel a need to help solve the abuse even though it is beyond their control.
  • Angry at the abusive parent for hurting the other, or angry at the victim, blaming them that the abuse is their own fault.
  • Confused about their role in the family, because parents may try to get children to choose sides. Children may also be confused about the relationship between love and violence; they may feel as though someone who loves them is allowed to hurt them. They may struggle with trusting authority figures and peers. They may not know how to express anger in a healthy way or cope with stress and conflict, and may learn to use aggressive language and behaviour to communicate. Males are at a higher risk to abuse their partners when they grow up. This means, without professional intervention, the cycle of violence will continue into the next generation.
  • Afraid for themselves and all family members. Children may also be afraid of being a failure or being abandoned. Children may display a fear of going to sleep and have nightmares or dreams of danger.
  • Sick because witnessing violence may cause children to experience headaches, ulcers, stomach aches, and asthma.
  • Isolated and insecure often making up excuses so they don’t have to go home or avoiding bringing friends home. They may have difficulty developing close relationships and separating themselves from conflict.
  • Dishonest and embarrassed because they make up excuses to family and friends for signs of abuse. A child often uses all their energy to keep the family secret, believing that if the secret is known the family will fall apart.
  • Overwhelmed by the situation, often leading to poor school performance, a need for attention and an unusual degree of fear.

Behaviours Children and Teens may Display

Infants  Pre-School Elementary  Early Adolescence
Failure to thrive Hitting and biting Bullying Bullying
Not cared for properly Cruelty to animals Aggression Anxiety, tension, poor concentration
Slow to develop Anxiety, separation anxiety Anxiety, tension, poor concentration Low self-esteem, withdrawal, depression
Disturbed eating and sleeping routine Clinging, withdrawal Low self-esteem, withdrawal, depression Destruction of property, truancy
Excessive crying Destruction of property Destruction of property Eating and sleeping problems
Fearful with loud noises Eating and sleeping problems Eating and sleeping problems Complains of sickness
Frequent illness Frequent illness Complains of sickness Poor school achievement
Problems in preschool/day-care Poor school achievement Disrespect for females
Regression (thumb sucking, bed-wetting) Disrespect for females Compliant, pleasing
Compliant, pleasing Compliant, pleasing Rebellious behaviour
Defiant behaviour Defiant behaviour Inappropriate sexual behaviour
Inappropriate sexual behaviour Inappropriate sexual behaviour Problems with other children/adolescents
Problems with other children Problems with other children PTSD*
PTSD* PTSD* Alcohol/drug use
Alcohol/drug use Running away, street living, prostitution
Running away Being abused or becoming abusive
Unhealthy Relationships

*Children who are severely affected may get Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder(PTSD), or have some symptoms. For example, children who are terrified by the violence, may start to have frequent nightmares, find that they often think of or get reminded about the abuse. At the same time they may try to avoid people, places or situations that remind them of the violence. They may withdraw from friends and usual activities and may be in an anxious state of “hyper arousal,” which causes poor sleep, poor memory and concentration. They may be irritable, suspicious, and have angry outbursts.

What Children Can Do

If you are witnessing abuse at home, you probably want to stop it but you might not be sure what to do. The first thing you can do is tell someone. You could tell any adult you know and trust – maybe a teacher, neighbour, friend, or family member. It is important that you stay safe when there is a fight, because trying to stop the fight can be very dangerous. If it is too dangerous to stay at home, go to a neighbour or a close friend’s house.

If you feel like running away, try to talk to someone you trust. It is important to try getting help while you’re still at home. You may feel mixed-up about what’s happening, and the person being abused might feel just as mixed-up as you do. If you want to talk to someone, consider phoning the Kids Help Phone @ 1-800-668-6868.

What Parents Can Do

In a functional family, parents love and want the best for their children; affection should be shown in words and actions. Parents should allow their children to openly express their feelings and they listen to their children rather than lecture at them. Parents must nurture their own relationship to model a healthy relationship to their children.

If your child is witnessing abuse, find a counsellor who they can openly talk to. This can help your child understand that violence is not acceptable and they are not to blame. Discussing and developing a safety plan with a counsellor can protect your child’s safety. If your safety is threatened, consider staying at a shelter or a close friend’s house. Remember that children who suffer emotional abuse because of family or partner abuse are considered abused children; take all the necessary steps to ensure your child’s safety and well-being.