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Children and Domestic Abuse

How domestic abuse affects children and young people

The risks of harm to children exposed to domestic abuse have now been recognised. An amendment to the definition of harm in the Children Act 1989 now includes 'impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill treatment of another' (Adoption and Children Act, 2002). This reflects that children living with domestic violence are over-represented among those children referred to statutory children and families teams with concerns about child abuse and neglect and represent about two thirds of cases seen at child protection conferences. However, children's experiences are more than a child protection issue. Research with children suggests it has implications for education, health, welfare and criminal justice.

Statistics about domestic abuse and children

  • In 90% of reported domestic abuse incidents, children have been present in the same or a nearby room
  • Each year in this country, over 750,000 children witness domestic abuse (Department of Health, 2003)
  • Over 30,000 children stay in refuges after their mothers have fled domestic abuse
  • In a Childline sample 38% of children had been assaulted
  • In 59% of children subjected to physical abuse, neglect and/or emotional abuse there was concurrent violence in the family, usually inflicted by men to women
  • Domestic abuse affects children regardless of age. Pregnancy or childbirth is often a trigger for the first abuse.
  • In Warwickshire between 1 January and 31 December 2007 1,529 (31%) of concern referrals to children's social care teams were referred due to domestic abuse. (Data source KIMS: 08/02/08)

Children who live with domestic abuse feel:

  • Powerless: Because they can't stop the violence
  • Confused: Because it doesn't make sense
  • Angry: Because it shouldn't be happening
  • Guilty: Because they think they've done something wrong
  • Sad: Because it's a loss
  • Afraid: Because they may  be hurt, they may lose someone they love, others may find out
  • Alone: Because they think it's happening only to them

Children are individuals and can react in many different ways to being brought up in a household where there is domestic abuse. However some of the effects of domestic abuse on children can include:

  • Physical harm by being caught up in the violence. Research indicates that between 30-60 percent of children suffer direct abuse when living with domestic abuse. Children, particularly teenagers, are vulnerable to being hurt through intervening in a violent incident.
  • Children learn to behave from the examples set for them.
  • Domestic abuse teaches children negative things about relationships and how to deal with people 

It can teach them:

  • That violence is a way to resolve conflict.
  • To keep secrets.
  • To mistrust those close to them.
  • That children are responsible and to blame  for the abuse, especially if it happens after an argument about the children.

Short term effects:

  • At school their work may suffer. One manager of a domestic abuse support service  in Warwickshire and ex headteacher estimates that children who are living with domestic abuse are on average two years behind their peers in their learning and achievement.
  • They may have poor attendance.
  • They may behave in an aggressive or withdrawn way or have behavioural problems.
  • They could be bullied or behave in a bullying way towards other children.
  • They could have poor concentration and display signs of emotional turmoil. Often this  is associated with the child worrying about what is happening to their mother.
  • Children may become violent themselves.
  • Babies under one show their distress by poor sleeping and excessive crying.
  • Children can suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress involving fear, helplessness and horror. This can involve flashbacks, a continual state of anxiety, and waiting for the possibility of abuse to themselves or their mother.
  • It leads to significant distress and impairment in all aspects of their life, play, health and ability to form relationships.
  • Children will feel unable to invite friends to their homes for fear of shame of what their friends might witness.
  • Black and Asian children may find it particularly difficult to leave communities which provide positive support for their religious and cultural life.
  • Resources for children with disabilities may be difficult to replace. Specialist assistance with schooling, care packages and alterations to the home may have taken years to establish and put an added restraint on women leaving an abusive situation.
  • Traveller children and their mothers may find the only way to escape domestic abuse is to leave traveller networks and lifestyle.
  • Older children may use drugs or alcohol as a way of coping or turn to self harm.
  • Some children may develop eating disorders

Long term effects:

The longer children are exposed to violence or domestic abuse, the more severe the effects on them are. These can include:

  • A lack of respect for the non-violent parent
  • Loss of self-confidence/low self-esteem, which will affect their ability to form healthy happy relationships in the future
  • Some of these children may become victims or perpetrators in future relationships

Research indicates that children in violent homes are:

  • 7 times more likely to commit suicide
  • 50% more likely to abuse alcohol or drugs
  • Likely to commit 76% of crimes as young juveniles

Talking to children about domestic abuse: 

  • It's not OK
  • It's not your fault
  • It must be scary for you
  • I will listen to you
  • I'm sorry you had to see/hear it
  • You do not deserve to have this in your family
  • There is nothing you could have done to prevent it/change it

How you can help children when they have witnessed/experienced domestic abuse: 

  • Talk about it with them when they are ready
  • Listen to them
  • Talk about their feelings
  • Show understanding
  • Let them know it's not their fault
  • Let them talk, if they want to
  • Let them know you will try to keep them safe/act in a way that is safe
  • Let them know that violence is not OK
  • Acknowledge it's hard/scary for them
  • Accept that they may not be willing or able to talk about it right away

How denial affects children:

  • The child will learn that violence is normal
  • Child is afraid to talk about the violence
  • Child is confused, doesn't understand
  • Blames him/herself
  • Learns to deny and not talk about their own feelings
  • Makes them feel like they are crazy
  • Makes them feel isolated and lonely
  • Learns that it is not OK to ask about the violence or discuss it
  • Gives the children unrealistic beliefs about the cause of violence

Benefits of talking to children about violence:

  • Children feel safer
  • They learn that violence isn't their fault
  • They learn that violence isn't an OK way to solve problems
  • It helps them to feel cared for, and understood
  • Children learn that it's OK to talk about feelings


Research with children and young people living with domestic violence shows that they have very individual reactions to the violence. They have their own views and interpretation of the abuse they are living with.

It is particularly important to avoid assumptions of permanent psychological damage and notions of 'cycles of abuse'.

There are several factors that moderate the risk of harm and negative experiences of children.

  • The mother's ability to maintain her parenting abilities under such adverse conditions and whether she is perceived by the children to be positively supportive are important factors in moderating the abuse impact
  • Children whose mother's mental health is not unduly affected by depression and anxiety also show greater resilience
  • Children also may learn positive aspects of survivorship from those mothers who model assertive and non violent responses to violence
  • Levels of social support from within the extended family or community are significant for all children, particularly with minority ethnic children
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