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Psychological theorists and researchers have identified the previously mentioned emotional and behavioral indicators as common signs of exposure to domestic violence. These symptoms are themselves detrimental to the MH and wellbeing of a child. He or she may be unable to keep up in school, could seek to cope with negative emotions through substance abuse or other risky activities, and might encounter further difficulties arising from aggressive or antisocial behavior. Professional intervention by child MH specialists, especially in the immediate aftermath of a domestic violence incident, can have a significant impact on guiding the child toward healthier coping strategies. For many of these children, home life does not provide any such example of healthy coping; domestic violence itself is generally a maladaptive coping response for the experience of negative emotions arising from interpersonal conflict. For younger children especially, there is little opportunity to act on the instinct of escaping from violence and danger. The feeling of being trapped within an environment of domestic violence contributes to the detrimental effects of witnessing that violence. Not only is the child usually powerless to escape and powerless to help, but he or she lacks the knowledge of how to process and deal with the resulting feelings. Child MH professionals can intervene to help these children better understand that the situation is not their fault, and that they need not feel guilty or ashamed of a situation they did not create. Simply having a safe, supportive environment in which to discuss their feelings can be an immense short-term benefit in these situations, since the negative impact of domestic violence is typically compounded by the pressure to maintain secrecy and perhaps actively deceive outsiders.

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Background Information
Most estimates for the prevalence of domestic violence in Australia are relatively high compared to other developed nations. Among the general population, the best currently available statistics show that 23 percent of Australian women (who are or have been married, or in a serious relationship) have experienced domestic violence at some point in their lives. The prevalence of domestic violence with males as the victim is more difficult to determine because of various cultural and gender norms, but some experts expect that male victimization is probably on par with female victimization. Virtually all experts agree that statistical data gathered from police reports and even self-report surveys does not reflect the true extent of domestic violence. The majority of this violence goes unreported and unrecognized. Domestic violence victimization extends beyond the direct targets of violence. Children who witness domestic violence between parents or caretakers often experience significant trauma. The negative long-term effects of domestic exposure are well-documented, but there is also a great deal of evidence currently available detailing the short-term impact on children’s MH and wellbeing. Child witnesses may, in the aftermath of an incident, exhibit poor concentration and other indications of trauma, experience feelings of anxiety, guilt, and shame, and engage in aggressive behaviors, various internalizing behaviors, or externalizing behaviors in response. Yet not all children who witness domestic violence show such symptoms. For some, the response is simply internalized. Others, though, seem to be relatively ‘immune’ to detrimental short-term effects. The personal factor of resilience has been identified as perhaps the most significant variable in terms of how a child copes with the experience.

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Discussion and Debate
Some people may not agree that the proposed initiatives are necessary or appropriate. The major alternative perspective argues that a MH and wellness-based approach, especially one that targets children who witness domestic violence rather than the direct victims, is essentially a waste of limited resources. The disagreement here is not deeply ideological, but a different view on the appropriate ordering of priorities. Rather than establishing and funding these sorts of initiatives, a proponent of this view would argue that resources should instead be devoted to criminal justice oriented responses to domestic violence. It would be inappropriate to begin treating the witnesses of violence before engaging in every possible effort to stop the violence from happening in the first place. This alternative view is not unreasonable, but it is, unfortunately, unrealistic. A criminal justice and policing based approach to domestic violence is the traditional social response, and it would not be inappropriate to increase efforts in this arena. Yet the sad fact of the matter is that it will never be possible to stop all domestic violence, nor will it be possible to catch and punish all offenders. Safe at Home programs are a step forward in dealing with the problem of domestic violence in a sensible way, but the social stigma of this violence means that it is essentially a never-ending problem. Providing superior MH and wellness care to children who witness domestic violence, in fact, is one of the best approaches to reducing the future prevalence of violence. By teaching child witnesses how to cope with their experiences, they are less likely to perpetuate the cycle of domestic violence as adults.

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The Issue: The Wellbeing of Children Who Witness Domestic Violence
Many Australian initiatives taking aim at the issue of domestic violence focus on the direct victims of that violence. Many resources seek to provide protection and aid for partners or children who have been abused physically, sexually, or psychologically. Some resources also focus on the secondary victims of domestic violence: the children in a household where there is violence between partners, for instance. Most such efforts emphasizing removing children from harm’s way, as though the Safe at Home programs that allow for removal of domestic violence offenders. However, less attention has been devoted to the mental health (MH) and wellbeing of children who witness domestic violence. The MH and wellbeing of such children in the short-term has been particularly neglected. It is vitally important to establish a better framework for quick response MH and wellbeing interventions to minimize the psychological harm to children who witness domestic violence.

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