Continual disaster stress creates perfect storm for first time domestic violence offences

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18 November 2021

By Barb Corapi

The cumulative effects of ongoing disasters in Australia is leading to first time domestic violence offences, experts advise, and it is children who are among the worst affected.

Ms Michelle Roberts, from The Australian National University (ANU), says the cascading effects of multiple disasters, including multiple lockdowns, has led to an increase in domestic violence cases and an increase in the frequency and severity of abusive behaviour.

“We’re aware that in disaster situations people can become dysregulated in their emotions. The fight or flight instinct may kick-in, adrenalin is high and their physiological state is aroused, making reactions difficult to moderate.”

“These reactions can include physical, emotional, and controlling behaviours,” said Ms Roberts, Director of the ANU Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss and Grief Network.

“We can’t only single out COVID. Over the past few years many people have experienced drought, fires, floods, and now the pandemic. All these disasters have led to a change in routine, loss of sense of control and uncertainty about the future.”

“Lockdowns have meant more time together in social isolation. Couple this with situational stressors such as home based work and school, job insecurity, financial stress, and increased alcohol consumption and it can lead to challenging and unpredictable behaviour.”

“For children who have lost their routine due to a disaster, and then the predictability and trust in the adults that are supposed to provide a safe haven and a trusted sense of connection - this can be catastrophic.”

Behavioural changes will typically occur in children who have experienced or witnessed domestic violence. They may appear more fearful, display outbursts of anger, show conflict in their play, experience loss of concentration, and have difficulty with academic performance.

However, it can be difficult to pinpoint if these behavioural changes are related to domestic violence or the stress and uncertainty of the disaster.

With a return to classrooms, identifying if domestic violence is occurring at home can commonly fall to teaching staff.

“In disasters, teachers and general practitioners are often the first port of call for help. Educators are expected to be alert to behaviours indicative of domestic violence, monitor the wellbeing of children and report children who are at risk,” said Ms Roberts.

 “It’s very important that teachers are given reminders and guidelines about the process for reporting and that they are provided support and feedback about the outcome of their reporting for their own closure and wellbeing.”

“Validating and acknowledging the role that teachers play in keeping children safe from domestic violence, amongst all their other duties, is also an important step in the process.”

The ANU Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss and Grief Network offers resources for professionals working with children who have experienced or witnessed abuse and violence.