Family violence and abuse hurts everyone, from the children, women, and men who experience the violence to those who witness it, and those committing it. It impacts people’s physical, emotional, and financial health and well-being, affecting our community as a whole.

When thinking about domestic or family violence, most people consider the impact on women, as 80% of victims of spousal violence are female. But Kim Ruse, executive director at Calgary Women’s Emergency Shelter, explains that children are actually their largest client group. In 2018, approximately 560 women and children were housed at the shelter, but 14,000 people were served in other ways, largely through children’s programming and therapy. She notes, “At any given day in the shelter, it’s mostly children, ages three and under.”

Risks to children: today and in the long-term

Ruse says that people may not realize how family violence and abuse can impact children, explaining that in some cases, there’s an assumption that children don’t see it. Although parents may believe they are shielding or protecting them, children are intuitive, and when we talk about abuse, it’s not just the physical interaction, it is other factors, like the tension that children feel and experience, which can impact their development. Ruse continues to say that whether or not children see it, they are absolutely impacted by family violence.

Each year in Canada, it is estimated that up to 362,000 children witness or experience family violence.

Although each child is different, and it is too simplistic to attribute behavior to one single element, children are impacted by abuse in a variety of ways. Sometimes the impact is caused by the physical stress of abuse. Other times, by the child coping. They may be trying to keep other family members safe, or trying to stop the abuse from happening to themselves.

As a result of domestic violence, children can experience short and long-term emotional, behavioural, or developmental challenges.

Ruse affirms, “Whether they see it, hear it, or experience it, there are plenty of studies showing that the impacts are very similar to those directly abused.”

But, Ruse points out that just because you’ve grown up around family violence or abuse does not mean that you are condemned to the fate of experiencing it, or being an abuser, as an adult. And while it is not the case that everyone facing family violence also struggles with other issues, there are often connections with poverty, financial stability, intergenerational trauma, mental health, or addictions.

Ruse warns, “While we do sometimes see these connections, we’re careful not to draw a causal link, especially when it comes to family violence. Ultimately, there’s choice in the behaviour, and our society is set up in a way that encourages those choices. Perpetrators can choose to change their behaviour, regardless of what has happened to them in the past.”

Education is key to prevention

In terms of preventing family violence and abuse, Ruse cites the importance of education, especially for children who have grown up with it in their homes: “A lot of agencies try to intervene early—especially around adolescence, helping children understand what a healthy relationship is so when they make their dating choices, they’re more informed.”

The key to creating change, Ruse stresses, is helping children understand their own value and the value of all people in society: “Teaching them equality, equity, and kindness is important. And helping them understand that if they are living with family violence and abuse, it’s not their fault, it’s not about them, and it’s not OK.”

While there is still some social stigma around family and domestic violence, it is becoming more openly discussed in our community. Programming is offered through a number of local agencies to help people act as supports for others facing domestic violence. Ruse and her colleagues are working to bolster public awareness across the city around this very important issue: “As long as we have the belief that it’s a private issue and you don’t intervene, it’ll keep happening behind closed doors.”

If you or someone you know is impacted by domestic violence, please contact the 24-hour family violence help line: 403-234-SAFE (7233) or toll-free 1-866-606-7233.