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What is violence?

bullyingChildren and young people in Australia are highly vulnerable to experiencing violence. In 2010, for both males and females aged 15 to 24 years the use of force, injury or violence, including attempts or threats on their life was higher than for any other age group.[1] Youth violence harms the victims, their family, friends and communities.

Exposure of children to violence is something that many parents worry about. Showing children how to deal with violence and how to avoid adopting aggression themselves as a solution to conflict is a challenge for all parents.[2] This Hot Topic describes the impact of violence on children and young people, what you can expect if your child is experiencing it or is engaged in aggressive behaviour, why it happens, things you can do to help your child or young person including practical tips and ideas, and avenues for getting extra assistance if you need it.

What is violence?

Children and young people can be victims of violence, aggressors themselves and/or witnesses (bystanders) to violence.[3] It may occur at school, on television, in popular music, on social media or in video games in the homes and communities in which our children study, work and play. Violence is intentional behaviour that is enacted to cause physical and/or psychological harm to others Violence can start at a young age and may continue on into young adulthood with serious consequences. Young people who engage in violence are also often involved in a range of other anti-social behaviours such as criminal behaviours (eg. stealing).

The teenage years are a time when young people begin to form intimate relationship s which if unhealthy, can result in dating violence, which may cause physical (pinching, hitting, slapping or kicking).or psychological (threatening, publically embarrassing, name calling, shaming or bullying) harm. Dating violence may also involve sexual aggression wherein a partner may be forced, either physically or non-physically, into non-consensual sexual behaviour. Stalking may also be involved in which the young person is harassed by another and feels unsafe. Increasingly technology is being used to commit violent acts with cyber bullying, online harassment and internet aggression more prevalent than a decade ago.[4]

What is the impact of violence?

Violence has the potential to cause a range of physical harms to the victim including permanent disability and even death. However physical harm is not the only outcome of violence. There are also a number of psychological and emotional difficulties that can arise.

Being bullied at school, including the experience of cyber bullying has been linked in extreme cases to suicide.[5] This is due to the intense level of distress experienced.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is one of several mental disorders that have been linked to being the victim of physical violence as well as to witnessing violence against others.[6] Violence also has the potential to cause psychological harm to the families and friends of young victims due to the stress involved in supporting them through this experience.[7] Furthermore, witnessing or experiencing violence can lead to the victim themselves becoming an aggressor later in life.[8]

There are also legal issues that can arise for the violent aggressor as it is a crime in all states of Australia to physically assault a person as is cyber bullying and sexual harassment.

Why does violence happen?

Violence is an unhealthy, dysfunctional tool for dealing with conflict or disagreement. Children learn how to communicate, including how to resolve conflict, from the adults and peers in their lives, and also from the media. If young children with insecure or weak parental bonding are raised with harsh parenting, corporal punishment and poor models for communicating their needs or wants they may be more likely to engage in aggression at school and later in their teenage years.[9]

Some children grow up with the understanding that aggression is the "normal" way to solve problems. If this behaviour is not challenged then it may reinforce the child's belief that violence is a way to solve problems. This belief in turn may be further strengthened by the notoriety and acceptance gained amongst peers from this behaviour.[10]

Youth violence peaks between the ages of 16 and 24 years, the period when sensation seeking and risk taking are at their strongest. The young person's developing brain naturally seeks out experiences, increases reward seeking and the associated highs.[11] Because the adolescent brain focuses on short term rewards, aggressive young people may continue to turn to violence because it provides them with a quick "rewarding" solution, especially where they have taken on a personal identity that associates them with violence. Also they are then more inclined to use other criminal activity to achieve the things they want.

Children and young people who use violence as a solution often fall behind academically, increasing their disconnection from school over time thus limiting their potential to access conventional pathways to further study or employment.

What can you expect?

Numerous factors have been linked to an increased likelihood of young people engaging in violent behaviour. While these factors do not directly cause violence on their own, they appear to contribute to the overall risk of violence. Signs that your child is at risk include:

  • hyperactivity
  • impulsiveness
  • poor behavioural control when perceiving others as a threat
  • attention problems
  • a history of aggressive behaviour
  • low education achievement and a poor attitude to school[12]
  • Witnessing or experiencing violence in the home[13]
  • being bullied
  • substance use (especially alcohol)[14]
  • harsh physical discipline[15]
  • drug abuse is linked to a greater likelihood of either being an aggressor or becoming a victim of violence. Some substances may make a person more aggressive which can lead to violent behaviour
  • associating with violent peers (such as a gang)[16]

Signs that your child may be experiencing violence at school or in their social or friendship group include:

  • bruising or other injuries including cuts and broken bones
  • school refusal (either reluctance to attend or absenteeism)
  • stolen personal items including lunch, lunch money, sports gear etc.,
  • fearfulness and anxiety about attending school
  • refusal to respond to friend's contacts - by phone, Faceboo or, email
  • a sudden change in temperament from being happy and willing to attend school or engage with friends, to being reluctant and frightened.

Things you can do

  • Demonstrate to children how to resolve conflict by using non-aggressive strategies yourself when interacting with others, your children and your partner.
  • Assist them to work through difficulties and conflicts constructively without solving their problems for them. Resilient children are less likely to engage in violence towards others as they have the tools required to find non-violent solutions to problems. See link below to Hot Topic on Being Resilient.
  • Keep talking and listening in a non-judgemental way so that you provide an opportunity for them to talk about any violence they may be experiencing at school or in relationships, in person or on-line.
  • Find out about the school's anti bullying policy. This will show what assistance is available if your child or young person is the victim of bullying. If they themselves are bullying then it is important for you to work with the school to stop it.
  • Watch for warning signs that your child/young person may be a victim of an aggressor. Teach them strategies for self-protection such as[17]:
    • Standing tall
    • Looking the aggressive person in the eye, and
    • Saying "stop hurting (hitting, pushing) me" in a strong and confident way
  • Learn conflict resolution skills so that you can be a good role model for non-violence when interacting with your children or teenager/s. Family parenting programs such as Triple P can be effective in teaching these skills.
  • Encourage teenagers to remain at school. Higher levels of educational attainment are linked to reduced levels of violence.
  • When your child is very young access preschool enrichment programs where positive social skills are encouraged and taught to assist them to manage their strong emotions.
  • Encourage children/young people to contact Kids Helpline to receive assistance in managing their own anger and aggression especially if you have difficulty communicating with them yourself.
  • Ensure that your child/young person knows that it is not acceptable for anyone to use violence against them and that you will support them to find ways to stop the violence.[18] Encourage them to find peaceful ways of solving problems with others by brainstorming approaches that take into account the other person's point of view and then help them chose the options that they think are best for all involved.
  • Some acts of violence occur because dangerous weapons are readily available and children/young people may believe that their peers will admire them for carrying weapons. Be sure to prevent access to weapons.
  • Know who your child's friends are. Levels of violence are higher when young people associate with aggressive peers.[19] It is important to teach them to choose friends wisely.
  • Tolerance and respect includes being tolerant of cultural and social differences as well as being tolerant of alternative opinions. See links below to Hot Topics on Family Relationships and Respectful Relationships.

Who can I contact for more information?

You may wish to contact your local parenting help service/s for further information.

Find out more about Parentline in your state

Links to Hot topics


  1. Australian Institute of Criminology. (2012). Australian crime: facts and figures 2011
  2. Australian Psychological Society. (2010). Parent guide to helping children manage conflict, aggression and bullying. Retrieved from: on 07 January 2015.
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Centre for Injury Prevention and Control. (2012). Understanding youth violence. Fact sheet. Division of Violence Protection.
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention l.Teen dating violence. Retrieved from: on 12 January 2015.
  5. Nickerson, A., & Slater, E.. (2009). School and community violence and victimization as predictors of adolescent suicidal behavior. School Psychology Review, Volume 38:2, pp.218-232.
  6. Horowitz, K., Weine, S., & Jekel, J. (1995). PTSD symptoms in urban adolescent girls: Compounded community trauma. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Volume 34, pp.1353-1361.
  7. Shields, N., Nadasen, K., & Pierce, L.. (2008). The effects of community violence on children in Cape Town, South Africa. Child Abuse & Neglect,Vlolume 32:5, p.589.
  8. Nansel, T.R., Overpeck, M.D., Haynie, D.L., Ruan, J. & Scheidt, P.C. (2003). Relationships between bullying and violence among US youth. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 157:4, pp.348-53.
  9. Rosenfeld, R., Edberg, M., Fang, X. (2013) Economics and youth violence: crime, disadvantage and community. NYU Press. p 257
  10. Ibid, p.266
  11. World Health Organisation . (2002) Youth Violence. Retrieved from: on 12 January 2015.
  12. Hann, D. M., & Borek, N. T. (2002). NIMH taking stock of risk factors for child/youth externalizing behavior problems. Bethesda, Maryland: National Institute of Mental Health, Volume 2.
  13. Mitchell, S., Lewin, A., Horn, I., Rasmussen, A., Sanders-Phillips, K., Valentine, D., & Joseph, J.. (2009). Violence exposure and the association between young African American mothers' discipline and child problem Behavior. Academic Pediatrics, Volume 9:3, pp.157-63.
  14. Weiner, M.D., Sussman, S., Sun, P. & Dent, C. (2005). Explaining the link between violence perpetration, victimization and drug use. Addictive Behaviors, Volume 30:6, pp 1261-1266.
  15. Op cit, Rosenfeld. p.266
  16. Op cit Rosenfeld , p.268; Op cit Hann
  17. Op cit Australian Psychological Society
  18. Ibid
  19. Op cit World Health Organisation

Updated: February 2015