Peaceful Childhoods – Peaceful Homes

The family is a key environment for fostering child development and growth.[1] Although conflict is inevitable in all human relationships, including within the home, it can be handled in ways which do not involve violence.[2] Violence in the home affects children greatly, whether in the form of witnessing or receiving abuse, watching their parents go through divorce, being separated or estranged from a parent due to parental incarceration, neglect, or many other issues.[3] Even young infants can experience stress caused by marital conflict, poverty, abuse, neglect, violence exposure, or parental drug or mental health problems which can harm a child’s brain development, leading to physical, learning and emotional problems into adulthood.[4],[5] The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study found a strong relationship between childhood exposure to abuse and household dysfunction and risk factors for various diseases in adulthood.[6] Violence against children can result in an inability to trust, empathize, form future relationships, injuries, cognitive impairment, failure to thrive, and poor self-esteem.[7] In Canada in 2009, almost 55 000 children and youth were sexually or physically assaulted.[8] Women, elderly people, and children are most susceptible to multiple types of abuse, and violence against women is linked to violence against children.[9], [10] Approximately 6% of Canadians have experienced spousal violence.[11] Abuse is often intergenerational, and the impact of abuse on children may have repercussions for their own children when they grow up to become parents.[12] If any person you know, especially a child, has or is experiencing abuse, violence, or trauma of any sort, it is vital to seek help for their own sake in order to combat the cycle of intergenerational abuse. This creates new opportunities for the next generation’s capacity to be peaceful parents.


The following is a list of warning signs that may indicate a child is being abused, though none of them is a specific and certain indicator.

  • Withdrawal from friends or usual activities
  • Changes in behavior — such as aggression, anger, hostility or hyperactivity — or changes in school performance
  • Depression, anxiety or a sudden loss of self-confidence
  • An apparent lack of supervision, frequent absences from school or reluctance to ride the school bus
  • Reluctance to leave school activities, as if he or she doesn’t want to go home
  • Attempts at running away or suicide[13]
  • Unexplained injuries (bruising, fractures, burns), or untreated medical and dental problems.[14]

For professionals who are in contact with both children and their parents, it is also important that they consider parental behaviour, as it may indicate child abuse. It is still legal in Canada for parents to use forms of corporal punishment to discipline children.[15] Parents and others need to know that it has adverse consequences for the subsequent mental health and development of children. There is no clear dividing line between corporal punishment and child abuse. Warning signs in parents for child abuse may include:

  • Showing little concern about their child, and being unable to recognize their child’s distress
  • Denying problems or blaming the child for problems at home
  • Inadequate explanations for their child’s bruises or injuries
  • Constant belittling, berating, or blaming of the child
  • The use of harsh physical discipline or asking teachers to use this [16]

Types of Trauma
Children experience many different forms of violence and trauma within the home, and for a variety of causes. Factors such as a lack of parent-child attachment, family breakdown, drug and alcohol abuse, as well as poverty, unemployment, and urban crowding increase the likelihood of violence within a home.[17] Witnessing violence between parents, though parents are often unaware the children are seeing or hearing this violence, may affect children’s school performance, self-esteem and trust in future intimate relationships.[18] Additionally, parent-child separation can be a source of trauma, such as may occur when a parent is incarcerated.[19] Reasons violence continues can include hesitancy to report abuse by a spouse or community authority figure, a child may be too young to report the violence against them, or a child may fear reprisal or is dependent upon their aggressor.[20] Cultural factors and age affect the types of violence enacted.[21]

Physical Violence
Physical violence occurs in many different forms, including being choked, burned, hit or beaten with an object or body part, thrown or shaken. Physical violence was the most commonly reported type of domestic violence against children in Canada in 2013, and parents were the most common perpetrators of family violence against children, especially if children are below age four.[22] One commonly overlooked form of physical violence is spanking, which can lead to children acting aggressively, the perception that hitting is acceptable, fear rather than respect for their parents, and unintended injuries.[23] The earlier children are spanked, the more likely they are to be defiant, impatient, easily frustrated, have tantrums, and lash out physically.[24] One spanking is not going to necessarily turn a child into an aggressive person, but it is important to consider the lessons demonstrated when physical punishment is chosen as a way of resolving familial conflict. Corporal punishment is defined as physical punishment designed to inflict pain as retribution, and includes spanking and paddling of minors and States are obligated to eliminate all forms of it.[25] In Canada, domestic use of physical punishment is not illegal, though it has been condemned by many groups.[26]

Sexual Violence
Females are at greater risk for physical violence, neglect, infanticide, and forced sexual violence than males.[27] There are high levels of secrecy, shame and denial of sexual violence, especially when sexual violence is perpetrated by a family member. In Canada in 2013, sexual violence against children and youth occurred at five times the rate of sexual violence against adults.[28] Intimate partner violence and the forced marriage of children increases the probability of this. Early marriage often means that females have less opportunity for education, are socially isolated, at increased risk for maternal mortality, more likely to experience intimate partner violence, and are assumed to consent to sex, though may be married as young as 10 years old. Sexual violence often causes psychological harm, and certain mental disorders are strongly related to childhood sexual abuse.[29] The effects of sexual abuse by someone who was loved or trusted are particularly damaging. Often parents who have survived sexual trauma in their own lives fear intimacy and may distance themselves from their children. This may create an attachment disruption between children and their parents, with the sexual violence against the parents victimizing the next generation by depriving them of parental intimacy.[30] Warning signs of sexual abuse include inappropriate sexual behaviour or knowledge, bloodied underwear, pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections, statements of sexual abuse, and trouble walking or sitting.[31]

Psychological Violence
Psychological violence can include insults, name-calling, put-downs, ignoring, isolation, rejection, threats to harm people or pets, belittlement and denigrating language based on ability, gender, race, origins, or achievements.[32] This type of violence is strongly correlated to physical violence, and produces anxiety, fear, humiliation, self-loathing, and loneliness in children. Symptoms of this type of violence can include social withdrawal, depression, headaches or stomachaches without a medical cause, loss of self-esteem, delayed or inappropriate emotional development, avoidance of certain situations, and desperate affection seeking.[33]




It is important for a child to be able to talk about their experiences of violence. Let them know that they are loved, that it was not their fault, and that it is okay for them to feel upset. Allow them to cry and be sad, as well as talk, write, or draw about how they are feeling.[34] Professional help may include different types of therapy and counselling, or mediation or peace circles in which victims, offenders, and their loved ones express their feelings and discuss the conflict in a controlled environment.[35] The supportive, non-offending caregiver plays an important role in facilitating a child’s recovery. It is important for children to be able to identify inaccurate perceptions about themselves and their experience, and to learn anxiety and emotion regulation. Trying to cope with violence can also lead to unhealthy behavioral lifestyles which have other health consequences, such as smoking or drinking alcohol excessively.[36]

One method of non-violent conflict resolution and family reunification is talking circles, where both parties along with their supporters and a community member are brought together to have honest conversations, in which both the problem and solutions are acknowledged. It is vital that responsibility is taken for individual choices, denial of which is an obstacle to moving forward and healing. As there is a diversity of types of domestic violence, there is a diversity of solutions and clearly this solution is not appropriate for all situations. While undergoing the circle process, it is an important step to appoint a close family member as a safety monitor who can keep checking on the family as a bridge to stop the violence. This type of intervention provides an opportunity to talk, hear each other, share stories and learn from each other without violence.[37]

Another method of conflict resolution involves facilitated dialogue, which like a talking circle, involves a conversation between all involved parties regarding past abuse, its impact, and ways to move forward. There are many good counselling programs and resources available to assist families in these conversations and steps to move forward.[38] This can take the form of Victim-Offender Reconciliation Programs (VORP), or basic conflict resolution and mediation sessions. These sessions can help teach people communication skills, including how to put aside their defence mechanisms, how to listen, how to understand one’s own attitudes and the perspective of others, and how to handle conflict in a positive, non-violent way.[39]

Whatever method of recovery is used, it is vital that partners and children seek help when recovering from any type of domestic violence. The impact of abuse is intergenerational as it sets a precedent for later parenting interactions, as well as shapes attachment patterns and relational expectations.[40] Therefore, it is vital that if violence affects children’s lives, it is addressed and quickly ended, giving children given an opportunity to heal emotionally, mentally, and physically.


Although not necessarily a form of violence within the home, when parents decide to get divorced, the manner in which they handle their separation can have a huge impact on their children. When parents decide to live separately, they have a choice of going through litigation in court or a mediation alternative. The process of years of aggressive litigation, lawyers, legal costs, stress, and high conflict situations can take a huge toll on both parents and the children of parents getting divorced.[41] Mediation is less conflictual and better able to consider the needs of the children involved. People who chose divorce mediation found increased involvement and parental decision making of the non-residential parent more than a decade after the divorce.[42] Divorce mediation separates financial decisions from parenting decision, allowing divorcing couples to better work out a co-parenting strategy that considers the needs of their children while reducing their stress and fear relating to financial concerns. Divorce mediation enhances non-violent communication strategies between former spouses.

When a child’s parents are divorcing, it is vital that the child never feels that they are the reason for the separation. Parents should not force the children to choose who they would like to live with, or say that they do not love each other anymore or that one of the parents is leaving; these confuse and scare children. Parents should consider the needs of their children and their stages of development when working out custody arrangements, rather than allowing children’s schedules to be a fight for control.[43]

Resources for Parents Going through Divorce:


Books for Parents:

  • “The Truth About Children and Divorce” by Robert Emery
  • “Co-parenting Works” by Tammy Daughtry
  • “Mom’s House, Dad’s House: Making Two Homes for Your Child” by Isolina Ricci

Books for Children

  • “Was it the Chocolate Pudding?” by Sandra Levines
  • “Dinosaurs Divorce” by Laurie & Marc Brown
  • “It’s Not Your Fault Ko-Ko Bear” by Vicky Lansky
  • “It’s Not the End of the World” by Judy Blume



Children are often victimized by having their parents incarcerated, as their family life is disrupted through parental separation.[44],[45] There is a high rate of children who grow up to be incarcerated if their parents were incarcerated.[46] For people with a spouse or parent in prison in Southern Ontario, visit for more support.



Physicians have a unique opportunity in the lives of children who may be experiencing violence; it is important that they feel equipped to identify problems and seek solutions for the safety of children. Physicians can ask these questions of patients, ‘Do you feel safe at home? Do you have any concerns about your children’s safety? Do you ever feel pressured, bullied or intimidated?’ to help identify if their clients are in an unsafe home environment.[47] Physicians should be familiar with available community and health care resources for abused persons, and have a legal duty to report any suspected child abuse or neglect. Physicians must treat not only the immediate symptoms of abuse, but also any long-term health consequences resulting from interpersonal violence.[48]



Institutions for children can be emergency or long term shelters, psychiatric facilities, group homes, or juvenile detention facilities. Large scale justice and care institutions do not support child development in the same way as a family setting does, and these institutions are much more costly.[49] Less wealthy countries with lower levels of public spending tend to have higher numbers of institutionalized children. Recently in developed and developing nations, few children are institutionalized because both their parents are deceased, but more so due to familial poverty, domestic violence, disability, family catastrophe, and a lack of community based alternatives. Unfortunately, along with not fostering proper child development, institutions are often the site of violence against children, both from staff and from other children. Violence occurs most when institutionalized children are under-prioritized, and when institutions are inadequately staffed, have poor monitoring and oversight, and mix children of different vulnerability levels, such as when young children are housed with older juvenile offenders. As nations and individual institutions differ in their levels of funding, prioritization, and monitoring, this information cannot be generalized to every country or every institution. However, proper child development and support is best given within a family structure if possible.

Institutional violence against children can be in the guise of treatment, heavy medication, neglect, corporal punishment, and psychological damage due to a lack of relationships during critical bonding periods.[50] Child mistreatment in the home can lead children to the streets, where risky survival behaviours put them in contact with the criminal justice system. In some criminal justice systems, long pre-trial detentions for children and the lack of separation of youth and adult offenders exposes young people to further violence. Solutions to increased institutionalization of children include providing better support services for families, including home visits, parenting skills opportunities, poverty reduction measures, respite care, free education, training and financial support for families with disabled children, increased support for foster care, adoption and extended family support, as well as capacity building for paraprofessionals such as support workers.[51] When young people are released from prison or justice institutions, it is vital that they have a good support network for community reintegration.[52]



  1. Pinheiro, P. (2006). World Report on Violence Against Children. Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations Secretary-General’s Study on Violence against Children. Chapter 3. Retrieved from
  2. Friesen, J. & Murphy, S. (30 June 2015). Personal Communication.
  3. City of Toronto. (n.d.). Coping with Parenting Stress. Retrieved from
  4. Meaney, M. (2013). Early Environmental Regulation of Gene Expression: How Early Experience Exerts a Sustained Influence on Neuronal Function. Presentation at Early Childhood Peace Consortium. Retrieved from
  5. Pinheiro, P. (2006). Chapter 1.
  6. Felitti, V. et al. (1998). Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. Am J Prev Med 14(4):245-258. DOI:10.1016/S0749-3797(98)00017-8
  7. Pinheiro, P. (2006). Chapter 3.
  8. Statistics Canada. (2012). Highlights: Family violence in Canada- A statistical profile. Retrieved from
  9. Butchart, A. & Mikton, C. (2014). Global Status Report on Violence Prevention 2014. Luxembourg: World Health Organization. Retrieved from
  10. Pinheiro, P. (2006)
  11. Statistics Canada. (2012).
  12. Butchart, A. & Mikton, C. (2014)
  13. Mayo Clinic Staff. (2012). Symptoms. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from
  14. Mayo Clinic Staff. (2012).
  15. Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children. 2015. ‘Global progress towards prohibiting all corporal punishment.’
  16. Mayo Clinic Staff. (2012).
  17. Pinheiro, P. (2006)
  18. O`Neill, P. & The Working Group & Andrus Family Fund & Center for Violence & Recovery, NYU. ‘Circles of Peace’ (film). 35 min.
  19. Miller, K. (2006). The Impact of Parental Incarceration on Children: An Emerging Need for Effective Interventions. Chi Adol SW J 23(4):472-486. DOI:10.1007/s10560-006-0065-6
  20. Pinheiro, P. (2006). Chapter 1.
  21. Butchart, A. & Mikton, C. (2014)
  22. Statistics Canada. (2015). Family violence in Canada: A statistical profile, 2013. Retrieved from
  23. City of Toronto. Positive Discipline. Retrieved from
  24. Park, A. (3 May 2010).The Long-Term Effects of Spanking: a multi-year study shows spanking kids makes them more aggressive later on. Retrieved from,9171,1983895,00.html
  25. Pinheiro, P. (2006). Chapter 2
  26. Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children. (2015). Global progress towards prohibiting all corporal punishment. Retrieved from
  27. Pinheiro, P. (2006). Chapter 3
  28. Statistics Canada. (2015).
  29. Pinheiro, P. (2006). Chapter 3
  30. Friesen, J. & Murphy, S. (2015).
  31. Mayo Clinic Staff. (2012).
  32. Pinheiro, P. (2006). Chapter 3
  33. Mayo Clinic Staff. (2012).
  34. National Institute of Mental Health. Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Violence and Disasters: What Parents Can Do. (2013).
  35. National Child Traumatic Stress Network & Federation of Families for Children`s Mental Health. Effective Treatments for Youth Trauma. Retrieved from
  36. Pinheiro, P. (2006). Chapter 3
  37. O’Neil, et al. ‘Circle of Peace’
  38. Friesen, J. & Murphy, S. (2015).
  39. Friesen, J. & Murphy, S. (2015).
  40. Friesen, J. & Murphy, S. (2015).
  41. Fortin, C. (7 July 2015). Personal communication.
  42. Emery, R., Laumann-Billings, L., Waldron, M., Sbarra, D. & Dillon, P. (2001). Child Custody Mediation and Litigation: Custody, Contact, and Coparenting 12 Years After Initial Dispute Resolution. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 69(2):323-332. DOI: 10.1037//0022-006X.69.2.323
  43. Fortin, C. (2015).
  44. F.E.A.T. for Children, (27 April 2015). FEAT 2015. (Video). 3:23. Retrieved from
  45. Miller, K. (2006).
  46. Hughes, K. (16 April 2014). F.E.A.T. Helps Kids Visit Incarcerated Parents, Offers Coping Programs. SamaritanMag. Retrieved from
  47. The CLEAR Toolkit 2.0. Retrieved from
  48. American Medical Association. (2008). Opinion 2.02- Physicians’ Obligations in Preventing, Identifying, and Treating Violence and Abuse. Retrieved from
  49. Pinheiro, P. (2006). Chapter 5
  50. Pinheiro, P. (2006). Chapter 6
  51. Pinheiro, P. (2006). Chapter 6
  52. Freisen & Murphy. (2015).