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"At least 750,000 children a year witness domestic violence. Nearly three quarters of children on the 'at risk' register live in households where domestic violence occurs" (Dept. of Health, 2002)
In 40 - 70% of cases where women are being abused, the children are also being directly abused themselves (Stark and Flitcraft,1996; Bowker et al., 1998.)
How are children affected by domestic violence ?
The majority of children witness the violence that is occurring, and in 90% of cases they are in the same or next room (Hughes, 1992). Children can 'witness' domestic violence in many different ways. For example, they may get caught in the middle of an incident in an effort to make the violence stop. They may be in the room next door and hear the abuse or see their mother's physical injuries following an incident of violence. They may be forced to stay in one room or may not be allowed to play. They may be forced to witness sexual abuse or they may be forced to take part in verbally abusing the victim. All children witnessing domestic violence are being emotionally abused.
Are the effects the same for every child?
Children can experience both short and long term cognitive, behavioural and emotional effects as a result of witnessing domestic abuse. Each child will respond differently to trauma and some may be resilient and not exhibit any negative effects.
Children's responses to the trauma of witnessing DV may vary according to a multitude of factors including, but not limited to, age, race, sex and stage of development. It is equally important to remember that these responses may also be caused by something other than witnessing domestic violence, and therefore a thorough assessment of a child's situation is vital.
Children are individuals and may respond to witnessing abuse in different ways. These are some of the effects described in a briefing by the Royal College of Psychiatrists (2004):
- They may become anxious or depressed
- They may have difficulty sleeping
- They have nightmares or flashbacks
- They can be easily startled
- 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 with school
- They may become aggressive or they may internalise their distress and withdraw from other people
- They may have a lowered sense of self-worth
- Older children may begin to play truant or start to use alcohol or drugs
- They may begin to self-harm by taking overdoses or cutting themselves
- They may have an eating disorder
Children may also feel angry, guilty, insecure, alone, frightened, powerless or confused. They may have ambivalent feelings towards both the abuser and the non-abusing parent.
What's the legal definition of a child "at risk" in relation to domestic violence?
Children living in households where domestic violence is happening are now identified as "at risk" under the Adoption and Children Act 2002. From 31 January 2005, Section 120 of this act extended the legal definition of harming children to include harm suffered by seeing or hearing ill treatment of others. This would include witnessing domestic abuse
From 31 January 2005, Section 120 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 came into force, which extends the legal definition of harming children to include harm suffered by seeing or hearing ill treatment of others, especially in the home. See a complete overview of protection from domestic violence under civil law.
Do children grow up to be abusers and/or victims?
The 'cycle of violence' otherwise known as the 'intergenerational theory' is often referred to when considering the effects of domestic violence on children; however research findings are inconsistent, and there is no automatic cause and effect relationship.
We believe that this theory is disempowering and ineffective when working with children. A boy who has witnessed domestic violence does not have to grow up to be an abuser and a girl does not have to become a victim of domestic violence later in life. Educational programmes focusing on healthy relationships, and challenging gender inequality, sexual stereotyping, and domestic violence, should be integrated with work on anti-bullying and conflict resolution as a mandatory part of the PHSE curriculum in all schools. These would act as important preventive measures.
Abuse through child contact
Unfortunately, even after separating from their abusers, many mothers find it extremely difficult to protect their children from ongoing abuse as a result of their requirement to comply with contact orders made by the family courts. Women's Aid supports a child's right to safe contact, but recognises that contact with an abusing parent may not always be in a child's best interest.