Family violence is when someone uses abusive behaviour to control and/or harm a member of their family, or someone with whom they have an intimate relationship.

Family violence includes many different forms of physical and emotional abuse, as well as neglect carried out by family members or intimate partners. It may include a single act of violence, or a number of acts that form a pattern of abuse. Family violence can have serious-and sometimes fatal-consequences for victims and for those who see or hear the violence.

Although the Criminal Code does not refer to specific “family violence offences”, many Criminal Code offences could be used to charge someone with acts of family violence. For more information on the criminal laws that could be applied, please see family violence Laws.

Forms and types of violence

There are many forms of violence, including physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuse.

The different forms of abuse can also occur in a range of relationships and contexts. Some examples of various types of family violence are intimate partner violence, child abuse and neglect, elder abuse, violence based on so-called “honour” and forced marriage.

Forms of violence

Family violence is not just physical violence. A person can be the victim of one or more forms of violence or abuse including:

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Financial abuse
  • Neglect

Physical abuse

Physical abuse, including assault, is the intentional use of force against a person without that person’s consent. It can cause physical pain or injury that may last a long time. Physical abuse includes:

  • pushing or shoving
  • hitting, slapping or kicking
  • pinching or punching
  • strangling or choking
  • stabbing or cutting
  • shooting
  • throwing objects at someone
  • burning
  • holding someone down for someone else to assault
  • locking someone in a room or tying them down
  • killing someone

All of these acts are crimes in Canada.

Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse of an adult can include:

  • sexual touching or sexual activity without consent
  • continued sexual contact when asked to stop
  • forcing someone to commit unsafe or humiliating sexual acts

All sexual contact with anyone without consent is a crime. This includes sexual touching or forcing sexual activity on a spouse, a common law partner or a dating partner. Even when married, a spouse cannot be forced to have sexual contact.

There are also special laws to protect children from sexual abuse and from sexual activities that exploit them.

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse happens when a person uses words or actions to control, frighten or isolate someone or take away their self-respect. Emotional abuse is sometimes called psychological abuse. It can include:

  • threats, put downs, name calling or insults
  • constant yelling or criticism
  • controlling or keeping someone from seeing friends or family
  • making fun of preventing someone from practicing their faith or religion
  • destroying belongings, hurting pets or threatening to do so
  • bullying: intimidation or humiliation (including on the Internet)

Many forms of emotional abuse are not crimes but can be signs that the abuse might get worse.

Some forms are crimes such as:

  • threats to harm the person or someone else
  • criminal harassment (stalking) which involves following or repeatedly contacting a person when they don’t want contact and they are afraid.

Financial abuse

Financial abuse happens when someone uses money or property to control or exploit someone else. It can involve:

  • taking someone’s money or property without permission
  • withholding or limiting money to control someone
  • pressuring someone to sign documents
  • forcing someone to sell things or change a will

Most forms of financial abuse are crimes, including theft and fraud.


Neglect happens when a family member, who has a duty to care for you, fails to provide you with your basic needs.

This can involve:

  • not providing proper food or warm clothing
  • failing to provide adequate health care, medication and personal hygiene (if needed)
  • failing to prevent physical harm
  • failing to ensure proper supervision (if needed)

Spouses and common-law partners have a duty to care for each other. Adults have a duty to care for their dependent children as well as their dependent parents.

Some forms of neglect are crimes in Canada, including failure to provide the necessities of life and child abandonment. If a child is neglected, child protection authorities could intervene and remove the child from his or her parents.

Types of family violence

  • Intimate partner violence
  • Child abuse and neglect
  • Elder abuse
  • Violence based on so-called “honour”
  • Forced marriage
  • Female genital mutilation

Intimate partner violence

Intimate partner violence is violence or abuse that happens:

  • within a marriage, common-law or dating relationship
  • in an opposite-sex or same-sex relationship
  • at any time during a relationship, including while it is breaking down, or after it has ended

Not all intimate partner violence is the same. In some cases, one person may want power and complete control over their partner and will use different ways (including physical violence) to get it. For example, they try to control things such as:

  • what that other person can wear
  • when and where that person can go out
  • who that person spends time with
  • when that person can talk to family and friends
  • what that person can spend money on
  • whether that person can work or take classes
  • all aspects of that person’s sexual activity

This type of abuse almost always gets worse over time. It often leads to serious physical violence and can cause you to have lasting health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In other cases, both partners may abuse each other. Conflict happens in every relationship, but there are healthy ways to solve problems. Sometimes people use violence instead of solving their problems peacefully. It can be hard to break the pattern of abuse, but it is possible.

Child abuse and neglect

Child abuse includes physical, sexual and emotional abuse. It also includes neglect, and any violence that children see or hear in their families. The person who abuses the child can be:

  • a parent
  • a brother or sister
  • another relative
  • a caregiver
  • a guardian
  • a teacher
  • another professional or volunteer who works with children (for example, a doctor or coach)

Abuse may take place in a child’s home, or it may happen in other places, like other people’s homes, schools, community centres or places of worship.

Laws to protect children

There are federal, provincial and territorial laws to protect children from abuse in the home. Some types of abuse are crimes and are listed in the Criminal Code which is a federal law that applies across Canada.

Even if the abuse is not a crime under the Criminal Code, provincial and territorial child protection laws could be used to stop the abuse.

There are also special laws to protect children from sexual abuse and from sexual activities that exploit them. Child sexual abuse happens when a person takes advantage of a child for sexual purposes. Sexual abuse of a child includes:

  • any sexual contact between an adult and a child under 16 years of age
  • any sexual contact with a child between the age of 16 and 18 without consent
  • any sexual contact that exploits a child under 18

Any sexual contact between an adult and a child under 16 is a crime. In Canada, the age of consent for sexual activity is 16, but there are some exceptions if the other person is close in age to the child.

In addition, children under 18 cannot legally give their consent to sexual activity that exploits them. Sexual activities that exploit a child include prostitution and pornography. They also include situations where someone in a position of authority or trust, or someone the child depends on, has any kind of sexual activity with the child. A person of authority or trust could be a parent, step-parent, grandparent, older sibling, teacher or coach.

If a child is sexually abused at home, child protection services could intervene and remove the child from his or her parents.

Child witnesses to family violence

Children who witness family violence are at risk for both short and long-term harm. Even if they don’t see or hear the violence, they can be affected by hearing or seeing the results of the violence. They can have emotional, behavioural and developmental problems. These problems can last a long time. They are also at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder.

Exposing a child to family violence can be grounds for child protection intervention under provincial and territorial child protection laws.

For more information on child abuse and neglect see:

Child Abuse is Wrong: What Can I Do?.

Other government publications:

  • Little eyes, little ears: how violence against a mother shapes children as they grow
  • The Effects of Family Violence on Children – Where Does it Hurt?
  • Stopping Child Abuse – Protecting Our Future

Elder abuse

Elder abuse is any action, behaviour or failure to act, by a person in a position of trust-like an adult child, family member, friend or caregiver-that causes or risks causing harm to an older adult. Elder abuse includes:

  • physical, sexual or emotional harm
  • damage to-or loss of-property or assets

Elder abuse covers a whole range of behaviours including

  • hurtful comments
  • dominating or controlling an older adult’s activities
  • isolating an older person from family, friends or regular activities
  • unduly pressuring older adults to sign legal documents that they do not fully understand
  • misusing a power of attorney
  • not providing appropriate medication or medical attention
  • any form of physical abuse

Elder abuse may take place in the home, the community or in an institution.

For more information about elder abuse see our publication Elder Abuse is Wrong.

For more information about fraud and older adults see:

  • Elder Abuse – Door-to-Door Sales Fraud
  • Elder Abuse – Credit Card Fraud
  • Elder Abuse – Investment Fraud
  • Elder Abuse – Lottery Fraud
  • Elder Abuse – Financial Fraud by Strangers

Violence based on so-called “honour”

Violence based on so-called “honour” happens when family members use violence to protect the family’s honour. The victim, who is usually female, has behaved in ways that the family believes will bring shame or dishonour. For example, the family might not approve of:

  • dating or talking to boys
  • having sexual relationships outside marriage
  • wearing what the parents believe is the wrong clothing
  • refusing a forced marriage

The family members believe that using violence will restore the family’s reputation. The types of violence the family uses can include:

  • beatings
  • forced confinement
  • threats
  • counselling suicide
  • killing

These actions are all crimes, and crimes committed in the name of so-called “honour” are often planned in advance with other family or community members. This violence is not limited to any particular ethnic or religious community.

For more information about violence based on “honour” see our publication Abuse is Wrong in Any Language.

Forced marriage

Forced marriage happens when one or both people do not consent to the marriage. Forced marriage is not the same as arranged marriage, where people consent to the marriage. Family members sometimes use physical violence, abduction, forced confinement or emotional abuse to force the person into the marriage. Even if parents try to force their child to marry because they think it is good for the child, using threats or violence to do this is a crime.

Children might also be the victims of forced marriages. Sometimes their families take them out of school to force them into marriages. This violence can occur in many ethnic or religious communities.

For more information about forced marriages see our publication Abuse is Wrong in Any Language.

Female genital mutilation

Female genital mutilation is any procedure that injures or removes all or part of the external female genital organs for non-medical reasons. It has no health benefits and it can cause pain and serious long-term health problems. Female genital mutilation of a child is a crime in Canada.

Also, any person who helps mutilate a female child’s genitals could be charged with a crime. This includes parents, doctors, or nurses. Even the person who asks someone else to do this to a child commits a crime. It is also against the law to take a child out of Canada to have this procedure done in another country.

Female genital mutilation is child abuse and should be reported to the authorities.

Family violence in Canada

How widespread is family violence in Canada?

The Government of Canada is working to increase our knowledge about family violence by doing research, studies and surveys including:

  • the Victimization cycle of the General Social Surveys (GSS)
  • the Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect
  • police-reported data such as the Incident-based Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR2) Survey and the Homicide Survey

National information that comes from these sources is provided in reports and articles produced by Statistics Canada, which show that family violence remains a common and widespread problem in Canada. For example,

According to the 2009 General Social Survey on Victimization (GSS):

  • Six percent of individuals with a current or former spouse reported being physically or sexually victimized by their spouse in the preceding five years.
  • In 2009, 64 percent of those with children who experienced violence by an ex-spouse indicated that a child had seen or heard the violence.
  • Less than one quarter of spousal violence victims reported the violence to police.

According to police-reported data:

  • In 2010 there were almost 99,000 victims of family violence in Canada who reported to the police, accounting for one-quarter of all victims of police-reported violent crime. Of these, almost half (49 percent) were victims of spousal and ex-spousal violence while the other half (51 percent) were children, siblings or extended family members.
  • In 2011, almost one-third (32.6 percent) of solved homicides were committed by a family member.

According to the Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect:

  • The two most common categories of substantiated maltreatment in 2008 were exposure to intimate partner violence (34 percent) and neglect (34 percent) as the primary category of maltreatment. Physical abuse was the primary form of maltreatment in 20 percent of substantiated investigations in 2008, emotional maltreatment accounted for 9 percent and sexual abuse was the principal concern in 3 percent.

Many experts suggest the amount of family violence may be much higher than these figures show. Surveys, studies and police reports do not capture all cases of violence and abuse. Research has shown that many abuse victims do not – or cannot – report their abuse to the police.

Impact on Canadians

All members of society are affected by family violence. There can be long term impacts of violence on victims’ physical and emotional health that can result in their inability to work, loss of wages, lack of participation in regular activities and limited ability to care for themselves and their children. Children may suffer long-term emotional, behavioural and developmental problems that can even lead them to be violent later in life. The financial consequences and the effects stretch far beyond to the victim’s family, friends, and communities.

There are also social costs. A considerable amount of Canadian resources are directed to address this issue including health care costs, costs to the justice system, to employers and businesses, and to social and community services

A recent study by The Department of Justice Canada, An Estimation of the Economic Impact of Spousal Violence in Canada, 2009, estimates the economic impact of one form of violence – spousal violence – to be about $7.4 billion a year, which amounts to $225.00 per Canadian.

The $7.4 billion total includes costs to:

  • Victims. Some $6.0 billion in costs associated with victims seeking medical attention, lost wages, damaged or destroyed property and the “intangibles” of pain and suffering and loss of life.
  • Third parties. More than $890 million in third party costs, including social service operating costs, losses to employers, the negative impact on children exposed to spousal violence, and other government expenditures.
  • Justice system costs. About $545 million in costs borne by the criminal justice system (i.e., police, court, prosecution, legal aid and correctional services) and civil justice system (i.e., civil protection orders, divorces and separations and child protection systems).

Intangible costs make up most of the economic impact of spousal violence (74.1 percent), followed by tangible costs (22.8 percent) and the lost future income of children who witness the violence (3.1 percent).

Tangible costs can be further broken down by who actually pays: the state (63.8 percent), individuals, including victims (29.4 percent), or the private sector (6.9 percent).