What Is Vicarious Violence?

A type of indirect violence suffered by the most vulnerable: children.

Gender violence  is one of the scourges that remain in force in today’s society. So far this year at least seven women have lost their lives at the hands of their partners, the first of them a few hours after the start of 2017.

Abuse and  domestic violence wreak havoc on the person attacked both physically and mentally, be they a woman or a man. But violence does not affect only the members of the couple.

When children are involved, they suffer both from the observation of the mistreatment of their loved ones and, in many cases, from direct or indirect violence applied against them. Some of them are even physically or psychologically assaulted with the purpose of harming the other component of the relationship. What these children are suffering is called vicarious violence.

What does ‘vicar’ mean?

The vicarious concept refers to the substitution or replacement of an individual by another in the exercise of a function or in the experience of a situation. An easy-to-understand example can be seen in  vicarious learning, in which you learn from observing the actions carried out by other people and their consequences.

Understanding the concept, it is understood that vicarious violence is going to be defined as situations in which some type of aggression is going to be carried out on one person or in substitution of another, which would be the true objective, or in a collateral way.

Vicarious violence: what it is and why it takes place

Vicarious violence is a type of intra-family violence that includes all conduct carried out in a conscious way to cause harm to another person, being exercised secondary to the main one. This violence is a form of child abuse that can range from viewing and witnessing by the minor of aggressions by one of her relatives to another or by the suffering of direct aggressions as a method to cause harm.

In many cases the son or daughter is used in an instrumental way with the aim of harming the true target of the violence, the partner. The individual who exercises the abuse takes advantage of the fragility of the minors, violating and undermining their physical or psychological integrity in order to psychologically harm their partner, awakening in her suffering, pain and a sense of guilt by not being able to defend the people most loved by the victim.

Vicarious violence or the threat of it is also used as a coercion and control mechanism towards the adult victim: upon knowledge of what the aggressor is capable of, the spouse or minor is forced to give in to the claims and desires of the another, and also given  the fear that minors will be attacked, the adult victim has fewer options to report, seek help or do something that puts them at risk.

This type of domestic violence can occur in multiple ways, both at the level of psychological abuse, deprivation of basic needs, physical abuse and even sexual abuse. In some cases, this type of violence can lead to the death of the minor, either in the form of homicide or premeditated murder.

Profile of the aggressor

Although the trigger for the aggressions can be very different depending on the case, in many cases behind the vicarious violence there can be a deep sense of inferiority and lack of self-worth, which generate in the  abuser a frustration that is aggressively discharged through violence on others. As with other forms of domestic violence, it usually involves men between the ages of twenty and fifty, although there are also cases in which the aggressor is a woman.

For the most part, the aggressor tends to seek dominance and the exercise of power through the submission of both his partner and the infants, feeling an authoritarian figure and enjoying obedience and control of the situation with which he tries to compensate your insecurities. Violent behaviors can sometimes be aggravated or triggered during states of drunkenness or altered consciousness.

Effects on the minor

Suffering from this type of violence will generate a series of physical and psychological effects on the minor that will profoundly mark the vast majority of vital areas, causing a series of serious damages in their development.

In the first place, one of the most immediate effects can be observed when the abuse occurs on a physical level. The attacks that the minor may suffer can lead to severe injuries that may require hospitalization and may even lead to disability (depending on the areas that are injured) or even death.

On a psychological level,  self-esteem and  self- concept can be severely damaged. As a general rule, a deterioration in attention and concentration capacity, a drop in academic performance and a high level of demotivation are observed. The appearance of post-traumatic stress disorders is frequent , with reminiscences of aggression, avoidance of situations reminiscent of abuse and a high level of physiological activation. It is not strange that anxiety or mood disorders such as depression also appear. Fear and  anhedonia are frequent symptoms that can even warn the social environment that the minor is suffering some type of abuse. Suicide attempts at some point in the life cycle, including childhood, are not uncommon.

On an emotional level, the acquisition of social skills, the appearance of empathy and self-control problems are greatly hindered. In this way, the appearance in the future of different disorders of a psychotic type or antisocial, aggressive and psychopathic behaviors is also favored .

At the social level, these minors tend to develop attitudes of great distrust in their interpersonal relationships, making affective bonding with third parties more complex. All this results from the violation and abuse to which they have been subjected, especially aggravated by the fact that the aggressor is a significant and close figure. The fact that there is an affective bond makes it more difficult for them to report or take other types of actions. It is also possible that the ill-treatment seen or suffered is dissociated from the rest of the experience, maintaining a relatively normal social life outside the home as a compensation mechanism. It is not uncommon for overprotective attitudes to develop with the most significant people in order to prevent them from suffering the same condition as them.

Finally, the vicarious violence to which they have been subjected can cause the affected minors to acquire the behavior patterns that they have been able to observe, generating a vicarious learning of the situation in which in the long run they can replicate the abuse by being used to them and consider violence in the family and the partner as a normal behavior.


The treatment of this phenomenon must be approached from a multidisciplinary perspective, in which both social, health, educational, administrative and judicial services work together. For this purpose, several action protocols have been carried out in cases of child abuse in the family environment.

Current legislation must guarantee the minor who suffers or witnesses abuse the right to provide assistance services that meet the needs derived from the situation of violence, being in both cases a victim of domestic violence and requiring the prevention of new situations that may cause physical or mental damage. In this regard, it is essential to detect and report cases of abuse, which is why different observation protocols have been established in institutions such as hospitals and schools.

On a psychological level, it is necessary to work from the psychology with the victims of aggressions, both with the minors affected and with adults, regardless of whether they have been a witness or have also suffered attacks. The need to give an explanation to the situation will produce deep frustration that they must be able to express, and it is also necessary to work with the cognitions and emotions caused by the abuse.

Collaborating in the processing of the situation suffered, favoring and promoting a realistic self-concept, avoiding behavioral avoidance and eliminating the typical self-blame of a large number of victims are common therapeutic objectives, which must be undertaken by validating the feelings of individuals and accepting them unconditionally.

With respect to the abuser, apart from the legal consequences of their actions and the preventive measures imposed (such as the restraining order), various rehabilitation therapies have been created that aim to modify their abusive behaviors and improve the management of frustration, through behavior modification techniques and other techniques of a cognitive and emotional nature.

Bibliographic references:

  • Deu del Olmo, MI (2016). Sons and daughters victims of gender violence in the City of Ceuta. Granada: University of Granada. [ http://hdl.handle.net/10481/43005 ]
  • Holt, S .; Buckley, H. & Whelan, S. (2008). The impact of exposure to domestic violence on children and young people. A review of the literature. Child Abuse & Neglect, 32, 798-810.
  • Save The Children (2006). Attention to boys and girls victims of gender violence. Analysis of the attention to the sons and daughters of women victims of gender violence in the women’s protection system. Madrid: Save the Children Spain.
  • SepĂșlveda, A. (2006). Gender violence as a cause of child abuse. Notebooks of Forensic Medicine, 12, (43-44), 149-164.
  • Vaccaro, S. (2015). Vicarious violence: Sons and daughters victims of violence against their mothers.

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