Risk Factors for Children in Situations of Family Violence in the Context of Separation and Divorce

3. Protective factors

As risk is contextual, it is important to consider what may be available for a child or family that may mitigate some of the aforementioned risks facing children in cases of domestic violence.  These protective factors may be used to understand why some children appear to be managing well in very adverse environments while others do not.  Professionals may consider how they might provide referrals and other sources of support that could provide additional assistance to children living with these experiences. Protective factors may not be relevant to certain types of risk (such as lethality for example) but may provide avenues to promote coping skills and other strategies of resilience.  Protective factors may be internal or external to the child and family and access to such supports may not be available in some situations.

A good assessment of risk is incomplete without considering the possible protective factors that exist in a child’s life or which may be implemented with the appropriate attention and resources.  However, it is important to recognize that a protective factor in itself may not negate the presence of the risk or the need to keep safety at the forefront of all decision making.  In particular, when considering the best interests of children in determining contact with an abusive parent, the quality of that contact should be considered more important that the quantity of that contact (Hunt & Roberts, 2004).

3.1 Separation and divorce as a protective factor

Most research on the impact of divorce points to the greatest harm to children coming from ongoing conflict and violence rather than divorce per se (Kelly & Emery, 2003). Separation can be a protective factor if the separation is associated with an end to the abuse and an opportunity for safety and healing for the adult and child victims of family violence. Some research has indicated that once exposure to the abusive living environment is reduced, problems around parenting and behaviour issues also decrease (Holden, Geffner, & Jouriles, 1998; Lapierre, 2008). This protective factor is dependent on the court and community agencies promoting these positive outcomes. Bancroft and Silverman (2002) consider children exposed to domestic violence who are now going through their parental separation or divorce as being ‘dually traumatized’ and requiring support to deal with both the violence and the separation. The children’s essential needs are for physical and emotional safety in their current environment, structure, limits and predictability, a secure attachment to a non-violent caregiver, safe contact with the abusive parent and a good relationships with peers/siblings.

3.2 Other general protective factors

Below is a table that outlines other general protective factors that need to be considered when assessing risk of harm for children exposed to family violence during parental separation or divorce.  For a more detailed description of each general factor, please see Appendix C.

General protective factors for children experiencing family violence

Child developmental level

  • the developmental stage of a child can be a protective factor when considering the child’s ability to access supports, manage internal affective states, and develop coping strategies
  • higher IQ may help a child cope either because the child is more cognitively able to make sense of surroundings or because success in academics creates an avenue for self-esteem and support

Safe mothers, safe children

  • greater protection for mother means greater protection for child
  • mothers employ short and long-term strategies/safety plans to keep herself and the children safe from harm

Family and social supports

  • for the child – support from siblings and  good, competent, and emotionally stable relationship with one parent or family member
  • for the adult victim –assistance from loved ones can decrease psychological distress
  • for the perpetrator – the development of social relationships and fear of losing family are seen as turning points for behaviour change

Community supports

  • access to community supports is essential for a woman and her children to leave an abusive partner and gain a sense of community
  • community supports include suitable and affordable accommodations, positive relationships with advocacy supports, and a coordinated approach to family violence including a batterer intervention program combined with ongoing monitoring and intervention programs targeted at abusive fathers
  • community relationships can decrease one’s likelihood of re-victimization and psychological distress
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