Recognizing and preventing family violence

While most children in Quebec grow up in a safe environment, for many, family violence is an unfortunate reality. Because violence has serious consequences, it’s important to talk about it so we can recognize the signs and learn to prevent it.


Family violence in Quebec: A closer look

While most children in Quebec grow up in a safe environment, for many, family violence is an unfortunate reality. Because violence has serious consequences, it’s important to talk about it so we can recognize the signs and learn to prevent it.

By Nathalie Vallerand

Family violence includes any form of abuse that children witness, hear, or experience in their family. The abuse may be carried out by a parent or another family member, such as a grandparent or uncle.

Some examples of family violence are emotional (a.k.a. psychological) abuse (yelling, swearing, or humiliating a child), physical punishment (smacking a child’s hands or legs, spanking, shaking a child over the age of 2), and severe physical violence (hitting a child with an object, kicking or slapping them, shaking a child under the age of 2). Sexual abuse committed by a relative is also considered family violence.

Neglect, too, is a form of violence. Neglect happens when parents fail to meet a child’s physical and psychological needs; these include food, hygiene, sleep, attention, and supervision.

Family violence also extends to intimate partner violence and children’s exposure to intimate partner violence. Intimate partner violence includes emotional, verbal, physical, sexual, and financial abuse (taking the other person’s money, running up debts in their name, or preventing them from working).

“Contrary to what many people believe, intimate partner violence does not result from a loss of control,” says Claudine Thibaudeau, head of training and clinical support at SOS violence conjugale. “It’s a way to establish and maintain control over the other person.”

Family violence: By the numbers

Violent parental behaviour appears to have declined in recent years, but it’s still a reality. According to a survey by the Institut de la statistique du Québec, in 2018, 42% of children aged 5 and under suffered repeated (three or more) instances of psychological abuse, 35% were physically punished at least once, and 2.6% suffered severe violence.

Children who are subjected to physical punishment are roughly 10 times more likely to experience severe physical violence.

Fortunately, neglect is less frequent. In 2018, close to 5% of children aged 5 and under lived in an environment where they were at risk of neglect, and less than 1% were reported to have experienced neglect.

In terms of intimate partner violence, 12% of women and men say they have experienced at least one form of it in their relationship, whether or not they have children. Women, however, are the victims of more severe acts of violence. They also comprise the majority of cases reported to the police. In 2018, 7% of children in Quebec were reportedly exposed to intimate partner violence.

Intimate partner violence often begins or escalates during pregnancy and in the first two years of a child’s life. In Quebec, nearly 1 in 10 women are abused by their partner during this period. “Every time a couple makes a commitment, such as moving in together or having a baby, it becomes more difficult for the victim to end the relationship,” Thibaudeau explains.

Most of the time, the violence continues after the baby is born and can extend to the child. Moreover, children exposed to intimate partner violence are more likely to become victims of psychological and physical abuse.

“Abusers are very good at manipulating their victims into believing they’re to blame for the situation,” says Thibaudeau. “They find excuses to justify their behaviour. But violence is never the victim’s fault, and there is no excuse for it.” No matter what form it takes, intimate partner violence is never acceptable or justified.

How violence affects children

Violence has only negative effects on children and can damage their relationship with their parents. A mother-child bond can even suffer when the mother is a victim of intimate partner violence.

Violence has only negative effects on children and can damage their relationship with their parents. A mother-child bond can even suffer when the mother is a victim of intimate partner violence. “Since the mother is in survival mode, she may struggle to take good care of her child,” says Dr. Delphine Collin-Vézina, professor at McGill University’s School of Social Work and the director of the university’s Centre for Research on Children and Families. “As a result, the child may try to gain control of the situation by refusing their mother’s authority. Or, they may try to protect her. That’s a huge burden for a child to shoulder.”

Repeated exposure to violence prevents children from developing the sense of security they need to thrive. “Their brains adapt by focusing on survival instead of learning,” says Marie-Ève Grisé Bolduc, a lecturer at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières and research assistant in child development. “All areas of a child’s development can be affected.” Young children who are repeatedly exposed to violence may have issues in the following areas:

  • Behaviour. Children may scream, bite, throw things, hide, freeze, be submissive to others, and disconnect from their emotions and physical sensations. They may act out for no apparent reason. “These are often survival reactions triggered by situations that remind them of the violence they experienced,” says Grisé Bolduc, who wrote a book on the effect of childhood trauma called Le trauma complexe chez l’enfant et l’adolescent. “It’s like their brain is sending out a false alarm.”
  • Relationships. “Since the parents haven’t provided safety and protection, their children may believe that the world is dangerous and that they can’t trust others,” says Grisé Bolduc. “Making friends and building good relationships can be a challenge for them.”
  • Emotional regulation. “Often, the child hasn’t been able to count on adults to help them verbalize their emotions, manage them appropriately, or recognize the emotions of others,” says Dr. Collin-Vézina.
  • Identity and self-esteem. Exposure to violence may also compromise the development of their identity (preferences, interests, and talents). “A child in survival mode spends less time in self-exploration,” says Dr. Collin-Vézina. “They have fewer opportunities to get to know themself.” What’s more, they may feel worthless, undeserving of love, and responsible for what’s happened to them.
  • Ability to think before acting, plan ahead, organize, reason, and problem solve. Since the brain region associated with these functions is underdeveloped compared to the region associated with survival, the child may struggle to focus on certain mental tasks or follow instructions. “It’s not because they’re unwilling. They simply don’t have the ability yet,” explains Grisé Bolduc.
Abused children are at greater risk of developing physical, mental health, and addiction problems in adulthood.

Fortunately, during early childhood, our brains are incredibly adaptable. “Positive experiences also leave an impression on the brain,” says Grisé Bolduc. “When an abused child is surrounded by caring people, their brains can create new connections that build resilience.”

Never resort to spanking
Spanking and other corporal punishments (e.g., slapping, pinching, squeezing) are not effective forms of discipline and have only negative effects on children. In the short term, the child will likely obey. But over time, they may develop anxiety, aggression, and a desire for revenge or rebellion. “When a child is physically punished, they feel afraid and insecure,” says Dr. Collin-Vézina. “As a result, they’re less trusting of their parents. Their self-esteem is also affected because they think they’re a bad person.” Furthermore, hitting doesn’t teach children obedience; rather, it teaches them that violence can be used to solve problems.

How to avoid losing control

You’re on edge. You feel your temper flaring. You’re afraid you might harm your child. What should you do?

You’re on edge. You feel your temper flaring. You’re afraid you might harm your child. What should you do?

According to psychologist Dr. Nicolas Berthelot, Canada Research Chair in Developmental Trauma and a professor of mental health at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, being able to recognize when you’re about to lose control is a big strength when you’re a parent. “If you’re tuned in to your emotions and you realize that you’re getting impatient, you can protect your child by simply stepping away,” says Dr. Berthelot.

When you feel your temper rise, he suggests that you step away from your child and take some deep breaths, then return once you’ve calmed down. You can also call a loved one to look after your child or help you cool off.

Ask for help

Are you feeling overwhelmed and worried you might lose patience with your child? “It’s important to take care of yourself to strike a balance,” says Dr. Berthelot. “Ask someone to babysit from time to time so you can unwind with a favourite activity or use stress management techniques.”

“If you do hurt your child,” he adds, “the right thing to do is admit you were wrong and get the help you need.” It’s best to seek professional help, such as from a psychologist, a psychoeducator, or a social worker (see resources).

Being a good parent despite childhood trauma

Being a parent is demanding. It’s even harder for parents who have been abused, as the trauma they’ve experienced makes them more vulnerable.

“Being a good parent may require more effort, and you’ll need to make sure you’ve got a good support network,” says Dr. Berthelot. “But the majority of parents who have experienced childhood trauma do not reproduce the violence they experienced. So, it is possible to give your child what your parents never gave you.”

One way to better adapt to parenthood is to acknowledge the impact these experiences have had on your life. “Painful childhood experiences can become obstacles to good parenting,” says Dr. Berthelot. “Coming to grips with your past with the help of a therapist will go a long way toward helping you deal with overwhelming emotions and ensure that your child won’t suffer the consequences.”

How to help victims of abuse

What to do if you suspect that a child is being neglected, exposed to intimate partner violence, or physically, emotionally, or sexually abused.

If you suspect that a child is being neglected, exposed to intimate partner violence, or physically, emotionally, or sexually abused, it’s important to alert your local Director of Youth Protection (DYP) so they can assess the situation. In 2022–2023, Quebec DYPs received 135,839 reports, nearly a third of which were selected for closer review. You can contact the DYP even if you don’t have proof. If a case is not pursued, the family may still be referred to support services or community organizations.

Intimate partner violence

If someone you know is being abused by their partner, it’s not a good idea to pressure them to leave or report the abuser. “In cases of intimate partner violence, the victim is in the most danger once they make up their mind to leave,” says Claudine Thibaudeau of SOS violence conjugale. “That’s when the level of violence tends to escalate. It’s not a decision you want to rush into.”

The best approach is to take things slowly while empowering the victim to take the next steps. For example, you can share your concerns and offer to help look into support resources. You can also lend a hand with safety planning—the process of identifying risks and preparing for different scenarios.

“The idea is to show the victim they have options,” Thibaudeau explains. “The decision to leave, including how and when to do it, is up to them.

Where can you get help and information?

For immediate assistance

Other resources

  • À cœur d’homme – A network of organizations that help men address violent behaviour: (French only), 1-877-660-7799
  • Social pediatrics centres:
  • Fédération des maisons d’hébergement pour femmes: (French only)
  • Fédération québécoise des organismes communautaires Famille: (French only)
  • Marie-Vincent Foundation:
  • ESPACE program:
  • Project STEP (Supporting the Transition and Engagement in Parenthood):
  • Rebâtir – Free legal consultation for victims of sexual or intimate partner violence:, 1-833-REBÂTIR
  • Regroupement des maisons pour femmes victimes de violence conjugale: (French only)
  • Réseau Maisons Oxygène – Help and housing for fathers in distress and their children: (French only)
Things to keep in mind
  • Family violence includes emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, as well as child neglect. It also encompasses intimate partner violence.
  • All forms of violence are unacceptable and have an impact on a child’s development.
  • Whether you are a victim of violence or you display violent behaviour, there are many resources you can turn to for help.
Naître et grandir

Source:Naître et grandir magazine, September–October 2023
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: Marie-Ève Clément, Ph.D., full professor, Department of Psychoeducation and Psychology, Université du Québec en Outaouais, and researcher at Recherches Appliquées et Interdisciplinaires sur les Violences intimes, familiales et structurelles and the Institut universitaire Jeunes en difficulté


  • La violence familiale dans la vie des enfants du Québec, 2018. Institut de la statistique du Québec, 2019, 150 pp.
  • “About family violence.” Government of Canada.
  • Grisé Bolduc, M.-È. Le trauma complexe chez l’enfant et l’adolescent. Éditions Midi trente, 2022, 160 pp.
  • Côté, I., et al. Tempête dans la famille. Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2019, 192 pp.


Photos (in order): GettyImages/Fizkes, Rawf8, Stefanikolic, Krblokhin, and urbazon