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Berry Street’s Take Two program has recently started delivering a trauma-informed service for young people (aged 12 to 17 years) who are using or who are at risk of using violence in their home.

Adolescent use of family violence is not as well researched or understood as intimate partner violence or family violence perpetrated by adults. The voices of young people who have grown up in homes where violence is used are rarely heard.

While there is a lot more work needed for us to know how we can work together with young people to break the cycle of violence and increase safety, here are six key things we do know about it.

1. The adolescent perpetrator may also be a victim survivor

Adolescents who use violence at home may have experienced violence as children or may still be experiencing it. Victoria Police recorded more than 26,000 family violence incidents where at least one child witnessed or was otherwise affected by the incident last year.[1] The incidence of children witnessing or being affected by family violence is likely to be far higher, as many incidents are never reported.

Young people can copy the behaviour they have seen someone in their family use. Family violence isn’t genetic, it’s a learned set of behaviours.

People are often seen as either perpetrators of violence, or as victim survivors. This is a problem for young people who are frequently both because it doesn’t provide a compassionate and trauma-informed approach for them and their family, which is the most effective way of reducing or stopping the violence.

2. Significant numbers of young people use violence at home

Adolescent family violence has increased during COVID. Victoria Police crime data from 2019-20 showed a 20 per cent spike in case of family violence perpetrated by someone aged 17 or under.

It might be physical violence, verbal aggression or other threatening, coercive or controlling behaviours towards their parents, siblings, carers, intimate partners or family pets. Most commonly it is boys using intimidation or violence towards their mother or other female carer.

Adolescent family violence is more than an occasional tantrum or ‘lashing out’. It’s repeated attempts to control or manipulate other family members which the child’s parent or carer aren’t able to address.

The real prevalence of adolescent family violence is likely to be far higher than what Victoria Police have recorded. Many families don’t report it because they’re scared their children will be removed, their child will get into trouble with the law or because they feel shame and guilt that they can’t stop it happening.

3. Adolescent family violence is complex and so are the solutions

Violence from young people towards their family is family violence, but it has complex causes and requires tailored solutions. It needs to be seen through the lens of the child’s relationships, experiences and developmental age. There can be a variety of factors that can all play a role in a young person’s difficulty managing their emotions and use of violence.

We take a holistic, trauma and risk-informed approach. Case management helps the family and young person with other services needed, such as safe housing, disability providers, mental health support and drug and alcohol services.

4. Imposing legal punishments often only makes things worse

Punishing an adolescent through the courts, or just removing them from their family home often doesn’t help the adolescent address their anger or the underlying causes of their use of violence. It’s unlikely to reduce or stop their use of violence. While intervention orders can be useful in some circumstances, often they can further isolate young people from their existing networks of support.

A therapeutic approach is needed to understand why they are using violence and to address the causes rather than just the symptoms. Removing children from the home should be used as a last resort.

5. Childhood trauma sits at the heart of much adolescent family violence

Childhood trauma (particularly repeated violence, abuse or neglect) experienced while the brain is still developing is very damaging. It impacts the way the child’s brain deals with fear and can make a child feel constantly scared which impacts their ability to self-regulate their thinking and the way they act.

Children who have experienced adverse childhood events or are suffering from childhood trauma are more likely to use adolescent family violence. Children learn by watching the way people behave around them. They need available caregivers to provide them nurture and attention, and to role model appropriate behaviours. Young people who use family violence may have seen others use violence to deal with conflict or not getting their own way, or they may have learnt that the best way to keep themselves feeling safe is to try and control others around them.

6. Early intervention is key

Ask for help if you’re worried about a young person’s use of violence at home. If family violence can be addressed in adolescence, it can prevent it from becoming more severe and frequent as the young person becomes an adult. Addressing it early can also put a stop to intergenerational cycles of family violence, childhood trauma and assist young people in developing healthy and respectful relationships.

If adolescent family violence gets dealt with only when it becomes a safety crisis and is reported to police, then the child is likely to be punished by the legal system. Unfortunately, this makes them feel even less safe and usually prevents them getting help to learn other ways of dealing with their emotions so they can stop using violence. When we can work with the family before a court order is needed, then we’re likely to be able to better prevent escalation of violence and potential entry into the youth justice, child protection, out-of-home care and adult criminal justice systems.

The use of family violence is never OK and should never be excused.

Call 000 and speak to the police if you or someone you know is in immediate danger.

In Victoria seek help through The Orange Door in your area or call Safe Steps at any time on
1800 015 188.

If you are outside of Victoria call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732.

Berry Street’s Take Two program is a Victoria-wide therapeutic service helping to address the impact on children of the trauma they have experienced from abuse, neglect or adverse experiences.

[1] Crime Statistics Agency (Victoria) 2020. Victoria Police July 2014 – June 2020, table 15. Melbourne: Crime Statistics Agency.