A crucial first step in addressing any difficulty is the courage of the person showing a problem or those affected by it to speak to someone else. With 20% of Australian young people from a cohort of 1,006 participants admitting to using violence against a family member, the issue of how to tell, who to tell, and what constitutes a useful response, is critical.
The report, Adolescent family violence in Australia: A national study of service and support needs for young people who use family violence by Kate Fitz-Gibbon et al (October 2022) addresses this question.
Who Do Young People Tell?
Of the 1,006 respondents, 34% reported disclosing this behaviour to a family member with mother being the most likely person to be told. Young women cited ‘understanding, sympathy and action as the reason they were the most helpful person’. This manifest in their mother’s help to address underlying causes for their use of violence and support in devising strategies to control and manage anger. For others, a mother’s personal experience of violence was the reason they were most suitable to confide in. 18% disclosed to a friend and expressed gratitude for the understanding they showed while only 7% disclosed to a person in an official capacity like a teacher, youth worker or counsellor. For this group, the professional’s ability to address underlying factors was valued. These rates did not distinguish between males and females.
Who is Least Helpful?
Those found least helpful ‘did not believe the young person, failed to take or suggest any action, or ignored the disclosure or excused the situation disclosed’. Similarly, a lack of response to disclosure or failure to act to support change, were experienced as the least helpful responses. Anger or retaliation by family members was also experienced as deeply unhelpful.
What Supports Do They Need?
Having found the courage to disclose this behaviour it is important that appropriate support is available. Thematic analysis revealed the need for ‘a safe space or place, someone to talk to, professional support. education around abusive behaviours, their impact, and the intergenerational cycle of violence a supportive school environment/school staff, and a supportive and protective mother.’
Do They Know and Can They Ask?
While some young people were able to identify factors that would have been helpful being unsure or not knowing what may have been useful was the most common response to this question. This may reflect the uncertainty and lack of experience of young people seeking help and few positive experiences of disclosure. Some said that nothing would have made a difference to their situation or experiences. The authors suggest that greater awareness and better access to relevant services needs to be addressed.
How Can we Change?
It is sobering that those of us who offer services to young people that practitioners feature so little in the process of disclosure and for many young people are not viewed as having anything to offer. Knowing the prevalence of this problem requires us to be aware, to ask a relevant question, to maintain an even-handed approach and be willing to engage in a conversation that both makes sense of the systemic nature of interpersonal violence and works or change the patterns which sustain it. Appreciating the significant role of parents and especially mothers in managing the disclosure process and utilising this resource will further support change.
Fitz-Gibbon, K., Meyer, S., Boxall, H., Maher, J., & Roberts, S. (2022). Adolescent family violence in Australia: A national study of service and support needs for young people who use family violence (Research report, 18/2022). ANROWS (Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety).