Children exposed to domestic violence are twice as likely to be in poorer health

PICTURE: A new study has found that nearly half of all children with language difficulties and mental and physical health problems have been exposed to intimate partner violence. view After

Credit: Jonathan Borba

A new study has found that up to half of all children with language difficulties and mental and physical health problems have been exposed to intimate partner violence, prompting calls for health services and social care to provide more effective identification and early intervention.

The research, conducted by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) and published in BMJ, showed that children exposed to domestic violence from childhood were twice as likely to have a psychiatric diagnosis, emotional and behavioral difficulties and impaired language skills by age 10. They were also more likely to have asthma and sleep problems.

The study also found that children exposed to domestic violence in the year they turned 10 were two to three times more likely to experience poor mental health, high blood pressure, and sleeping troubles. But with the exception of language difficulties and asthma, the health of children at age 10 was not affected if their only exposure to intimate partner violence occurred before age five, which highlights the need for more effective early intervention.

The research looked at 1,507 first-time mothers and their firstborns. Women were recruited for the study from six public maternity hospitals in Melbourne. More than one in four women and children in the study were exposed to intimate partner violence in the first 10 years after childbirth.

MCRI professor Stephanie Brown said the findings showed the magnitude of the burden of ill health borne by children growing up in households where intimate partner violence has occurred.

“The intimate partner is the most common form of violence against women and their children and is a global public health problem,” she said. “It is not limited to physical and sexual violence and is often characterized by a pattern of psychological control and coercion. Children can understand this and experience constant fear or anxiety at home.

“The impact of COVID-19 has increased pressure on families and increased the need for more effective intervention and support for women and children victims of domestic violence.”

Professor Brown said many women who experience domestic violence are unsure of seeking help from family health and social care services.

“Services should be aware of the impact of intimate partner violence on the health and well-being of children and work to overcome barriers that may hamper women seeking support for themselves and their children. She said.

“Barriers can include fear of judgment, the perception that health services cannot help, the cost of GP appointments, the limited availability of low-cost psychological and related health services, and the lack of services that take a holistic approach to women’s and children’s health and well-being.

“If child health and social services do not recognize and respond to intimate partner violence as a potential contributing factor to poor child health outcomes, interventions to support children with health problems and development will likely be less effective.

MCRI’s Dr Deirdre Gartland said some mothers and children enjoy good health and well-being despite their exposure to domestic violence.

“It is important to recognize that not all children exposed to domestic violence have poor physical and mental health,” she said.

“Women are doing all they can to protect and care for their children to give them the best possible results despite the situations they find themselves in.”

Researchers from the University of Melbourne, La Trobe University, Royal Women’s Hospital, Queensland University of Technology, Griffith University and Deakin University also contributed to the findings.


Publication: Deirdre Gartland, Laura J Conway, Rebecca Giallo, Fiona K Mensah, Fallon Cook, Kelsey Hegarty, Helen Herrman, Jan Nicholson, Sheena Reilly, Harriet Hiscock, Emma Sciberras and Stephanie J Brown. “ Intimate Partner Violence and Child Outcomes at 10: A Pregnancy Cohort ” BMJ. DOI: 10.1136 / archdischild-2020-320321

* The contents of this communication are the sole responsibility of the MCRI and do not reflect the views of the NHMRC.

Available for maintenance:

Professor Stephanie Brown, MCRI Group Leader, Ingenerational Health

Dr Deirdre Gartland, MCRI Team Leader, Ingenerational Health


The maternal health study was supported by project grants from the Australian National Council for Health and Medical Research (NHMRC; # 199222, # 433006 and # 491205) and Australian Rotary Health. Stephanie Brown holds an NHMRC Senior Research Fellowship (# 1103976). Rebecca Giallo, Fiona Mensah and Emma Sciberras hold NHMRC Career Development Awards (# 1123900, # 1111160 and # 1110688). Emma Sciberras holds a Veski Inspiring Women’s Fellowship. Harriet Hiscock holds an NHMRC Practitioner Fellowship (# 1136222). Deirdre Gartland and Laura Conway are supported by the NHMRC Safer Families Center (# 1116690). Laura Conway and Fallon Cook hold Lifecourse Postdoctoral Fellowships supported by the Royal Children’s Hospital Research Foundation. Research at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute is supported by the Government of Victoria’s Operational Infrastructure Support Program.

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