Children and domestic violence
If you have children, you have probably tried to shield them from the domestic violence as much as you possibly can. Perhaps you are hoping they do not know it is happening. However, in the majority of families where there are children, and where abuse is being perpetrated, the children will be aware of this, and will often hear it or see it going on. According to the Department of Health, at least 750,000 children a year witness domestic violence. In some cases, the children themselves will suffer physical or sexual abuse from the same perpetrator. See When children are being abused
Children can witness domestic violence in a variety of ways. For example, they may be in the same room and may get caught in the middle of an incident, perhaps in an effort to make the violence stop; they may be in another room but be able to hear the abuse or see their mother's physical injuries following an incident of violence; or they may be forced to take part in verbally abusing the victim. Children are completely dependent on the adults around them, and if they do not feel safe in their own homes, this can have many negative physical and emotional effects. All children witnessing domestic violence are being emotionally abused, and this is now recognised as 'significant harm' in recent legislation (1).
Children will react in different ways to being brought up in a home with a violent person. Age, race, sex, culture, stage of development, and individual personality will all have an effect on a child's responses. Most children, however, will be affected in some way by tension or by witnessing arguments, distressing behaviour or assaults - even if they do not always show this. They may feel that they are to blame, or - like you - they may feel angry, guilty, insecure, alone, frightened, powerless, or confused. They may have ambivalent feelings, both towards the abuser, and towards the non-abusing parent.
These are some of the effects of domestic violence on children:
- They may become anxious or depressed.
- They may have difficulty sleeping.
- They may have nightmares or flashbacks.
- They may complain of physical symptoms such as tummy aches.
- They may start to wet their bed.
- They may have temper tantrums.
- They may behave as though they are much younger than they are.
- They may have problems at school, or may start truanting.
- They may become aggressive.
- They may internalise their distress and withdraw from other people.
- They may have a lowered sense of self-worth.
- Older children may start to use alcohol or drugs.
- They may begin to self-harm by taking overdoses or cutting themselves.
- They may develop an eating disorder.
Violence may also interfere with your children's social relationships: they may feel unable to invite friends round (or may be prevented from doing so by the abuser) out of shame, fear, or concern about what their friends may see. They may feel guilty, and think the violence is their fault, or that they ought to be able to stop it in some way. There can be an impact on school attendance and achievement: some children will stay home in an attempt to protect their mother, or because they are frightened what may happen if they go out. Worry, disturbed sleep and lack of concentration can all affect school work.
You may feel that you will be blamed for failing as a parent, or for asking for help, and you may worry that your children will be taken away from you if you report the violence. But it is acting responsibly to seek help for yourself and your children, and you are never to blame for someone else's abuse. It is important that you - the non-abusing parent - are supported so that in turn you can support your children and ensure that they are safe, and that the effects of witnessing (and perhaps directly experiencing) the violence are addressed.
When children are being abused
Research has consistently shown that a high proportion of children living with domestic violence are themselves being abused - either physically or sexually - by the same perpetrator. Estimates vary from 30% to 66% depending upon the study. Nearly three-quarters of children on the 'at risk' register live in households where domestic violence is occurring. (Department of Health figures; see References
Men who are abusive to women do not necessarily abuse children too, but some of them do. If you suspect that this is happening, or that it has happened, it is important that you raise this issue with your children and take steps to protect them, for example, by seeking advice from Women's Aid or another domestic violence organisation, or from social services or other agencies that are there to assist and protect children. Social workers will not take your children away if they can work with you to make sure they are safe.
If your child, or a child you know, tells you that he/she has been abused, your immediate response is very important:
- Listen carefully and let your child tell you what happened in his/her own time.
- Reassure your child that he/she is not to blame for what happened (or is happening).
- Let your child know he/she is very brave to tell you about it.
- Show your child that you are concerned for him/her.
- Try to stay calm and not let your child see how shocked you are.
If your child is at risk of further abuse (for example, if you are still living with the perpetrator, or if your children have regular contact with him) then you will need to take steps to protect him/her from further harm. You may want to talk to your local Women's Aid organisation, or to the Freephone 24 Hour National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247, run in partnership between Women's Aid and Refuge, to help you decide what you should do next.
How you can help your children
Some mothers and children use silence or denial to try to cope with the abuse. But most children appreciate an opportunity to acknowledge the violence and to talk about what they are feeling. Do talk to your children - and listen to them. Try to be honest about the situation, without frightening them. Reassure them that the violence is not their fault and that they are not responsible for adult behaviour. Explain to them that violence is wrong and that it does not solve problems. Remember, your children will naturally trust you - try not to break that trust by directly lying to them.
Encourage your children to talk about their wishes and feelings. You could do this perhaps by doing an activity together, or encouraging them to draw or write about what is happening and how they feel about it. Your child's teacher may be able to help you with this. Sometimes children will wait until they feel safe and are no longer in the violent environment before they start to talk about their feelings. You could suggest that your children look at the Women's Aid website for children and young people, The Hideout: http://www.thehideout.org.uk/
. This website has information, activities, a quiz and stories of children living with domestic violence.
You may believe it is best for your children if you try to keep the family together in order to provide the security of a home and father - despite the ongoing fear, and the emotional and physical abuse. However, children will feel more secure with one parent in a stable environment than with two parents when the environment is unstable and violent.
Moving into a refuge with your children
For reasons of safety, you may find it impossible to prepare your children in advance for an imminent move to a refuge. However, as soon as you can do so safely, do tell them what is happening. You could perhaps make this move less threatening by saying that you are all going away for a little while to a special place for mothers and children. Explain to your children that the move does not mean that they will never see other family members, their friends or their pets again.
Most refuges have children's support workers who will make your children feel safe and at home in the refuge, and almost all refuges will have other children staying there when you arrive. There will always be a playroom for children, and the children's worker will arrange activities for young refuge residents both in and away from the refuge. These children's activities will benefit you as well as your children; you will have time to consider your own options and discuss your plans with other adults while your children participate in supervised activities.
Children are an important part of refuge life, and living in a refuge can be a positive experience for your children. They will have the opportunity to meet other children in a similar situation to their own. They can talk about their experiences with each other and begin to understand that they are not alone. With the help and support of the refuge staff and volunteers, children can be helped to come to an understanding of their situation.
When children become aggressive
Sometimes one of your children may become aggressive or abusive towards you or others in the family. Some women only experience domestic violence from their sons. Others may be abused both by their partners and by their children - either at the same time, or subsequently. Boys in particular may copy their father's behaviour, or they may be afraid they will turn out like him. This may be a temporary behavioural disturbance; but if it is ongoing, and particularly if your child is a teenager (or older), you may need to do something to protect yourself and other children in the family.
You may decide to contact Social Services. If your child is over 16, you have the right to evict them from your home - and it is Social Services' responsibility to carry out a needs assessment under the Children Act 1989. If they refuse to help, try to get this in writing. You can also contact the Children's Legal Centre at www.childrenslegalcentre.com
or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
If your child is abusive towards you, it is not your fault, nor should you feel guilty about taking steps to protect yourself and your family. Remember that a severely aggressive or abusive child can have a negative effect on the other children in the family.
For further advice if you are experiencing abuse or violence from one of your children, contact the Tulip Group on 0151 637 6363.
Further information and help with your children
Whether or not you and your children move into a refuge, you could call the NSPCC National Child Protection Helpline on 0808 800 5000; or you may want to talk to your health visitor, or other health care professional. If you are pregnant, you may want to talk to your midwife.
Other organisations that you may find helpful include:
A registered charity, Parentline Plus provides support to parents under stress and refers to sources of local support. The website contains information on a wide variety of topics of common concern to parents, and it has a number of information leaflets which can be downloaded free of charge. Freephone helpline: 0808 800 2222, 24 hours every day. Website: www.parentlineplus.org.uk
Family Rights Group:
The Family Rights Group gives confidential advice for families whose children are involved with Social Services. The group has a number of information leaflets available on its website, and it offers an advocacy service for parents. Freephone 0808 801 0366 10am-3:30pm Monday to Friday
. Website: www.frg.org.uk
produces a useful booklet, 'How to parent when you're in crisis'. You can print a copy from the website or buy it from the online shop. Website: www.mind.org.uk
Young Minds Parents' information service:
Provides help for parents concerned about a young person's mental health. The service offers a variety of leaflets and booklets, including one that explores how divorce and separation affect children and young people. Phone: 0800 018 2138 Monday - Friday 10am - 1pm; Tuesday and Thursday 1pm - 4pm; Wednesday 1pm - 4pm and 6pm - 8pm. Website: www.youngminds.org.uk
You could suggest your children ring Childline on 0800 1111, or they could look at the Women's Aid website for children and young people, The Hideout: www.thehideout.org.uk
A guide for educational professionals has been produced by Save the Children
in conjunction with local Women’s Aid services. Safe Learning
(2006, price £9-95) offers an insight into children’s experiences of domestic violence and how these may affect their learning, and makes suggestions as to how educational professionals could respond in order to support children and minimise any disruption to their education.
Department of Health (2002) 'Women's Mental Health: Into the Mainstream: Strategic development of mental health care for women' (London: DH).
Mullender, A. and Morley, R. 'Children living with domestic violence' (London: Whiting and Birch).
1. Section 120 of the Children and Adoption Act 2002, which came into effect on 31 January 2005.