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Reaping as We Sow

Acknowledging the prevalence and impact of violence in Australian families has been challenging and is usually understood as the violence men perpetrate against women. However, there is another form of abuse that is less acknowledged, the violence of adolescents to their family members. Adolescent Family Violence is defined as ‘the use of family violence (including physical, emotional, psychological, verbal, financial and/or sexual abuse) by a young person against their parent, carer, sibling or other family member within the home’. A study funded by Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety, surveyed 5,000 young people aged 16-20 and reported that one in five admitted to engaging in family violence.

Who Does What?

The study reported a statistically significant gender difference, with 23% of those assigned female at birth having engaged in violence as compared to 14% of males. The most common form of violence was verbal abuse (15%), followed by physical assault (10%) and emotional/psychological abuse (5%). Only 2% had threatened to harm or hurt a member of the family or someone close to them

And to Whom?

Immediate family members are most likely to be the target with siblings at greatest risk, followed by mothers and then fathers. Grandparents, uncles and aunts, step and foster parents are less likely to be harmed, possibly due to the reduced opportunity compared to those who cohabitate.

What is Happening?

A startling, yet not unexpected finding, is that 89% of those who use family violence reported experiencing child abuse, with the correlation occurring across all forms of family violence. These young people were more than nine times more likely to use violence than those who had not been abused. They were also likely to engage in more frequent episodes against more family members. Where a child both witnessed abuse and was the target of violence the likelihood of them reproducing the behaviour was even higher. When asked to explain their behaviour young people spoke of both retaliation against those who had hurt them or having learned that violence was normal in a family.

How Can we Respond?

Addressing the problem requires an understanding that the use of violence is an intergenerational pattern that must be addressed systemically if young people and their families and future families are to be safe. Adolescent violence needs to be recognised as a distinct form of family violence that has significant physical, emotional, and social consequences for the young person and all family members. It also effects engagement at school. All those who work with families; child and adolescent mental health services, educators and medical practitioners need to be aware of the prevalence, and connection to parallel violence and abuse in the family. We must be willing to address each level of system from the individual to the family and into the wider community. Locating the problem and seeking the solution inside the young person is likely to increase shame and confusion. It is better to adopt an approach which locates the responsibility for seeking and enacting a solution in all those involved.

Fitz-Gibbon, K., Meyer, S., Boxall, H., Maher, J., & Roberts, S. (2022). Adolescent family violence in Australia: A national study of prevalence, history of childhood victimisation and impacts (Research report, 15/2022).

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