Impact on children and young people

The impact of domestic abuse on children and young people

Domestic violence has a devastating impact on children and young people that can last into adulthood. Domestic abuse services offer specialist emotional and practical support for children and young people affected by domestic abuse.

  • One in seven (14.2%) children and young people under the age of 18 will have lived with domestic violence at some point in their childhood.
  • 61.7% of women in refuge on the Day to Count 2017 had children (aged under 18) with them (Women’s Aid, 2018 – data from Women’s Aid Annual Survey 2017).
  • Between January 2005 and August 2015 (inclusive) 19 children and two women were killed by perpetrators of domestic abuse in circumstances relating to child contact (formally or informally arranged) (Women’s Aid, 2016). A Women’s Aid review of SCRs published since August 2015 highlighted at least one more case falling into this category (Women’s Aid, 2017).
  • Research published by Cafcass in 2017, in partnership with Women’s Aid, analysed a sample of 216 child contact cases that closed to Cafcass between April 2015 and March 2016. It found that more than two thirds of the cases in the sample involved allegations of domestic abuse, yet in 23% of these cases, unsupervised contact was ordered at the first hearing.
  • Research published by Women’s Aid and Queen Mary University London in 2018, based on the experiences of 72 women survivors of domestic abuse whose family court case concluded the last five years, found evidence of gender discrimination and a culture of disbelief within the family courts system. The systemic nature of negative perceptions around survivors of domestic abuse and mothers who raise concerns about child contact arrangements, along with gaps and inconsistencies in understanding and awareness of domestic abuse and its impact on children, is blocking the effectiveness of policies and practices to ensure safe child contact and increase awareness of domestic abuse within child contact procedures. The ingrained nature of such perceptions also increases the likelihood of human rights protection gaps for survivors and their children (Birchall and Choudhry, 2018).
  • In the above research by Women’s Aid and Queen Mary University London, 61% of survey respondents had not had any special measures in the family court, 48% said that a fact finding hearing had not taken place as part of their case, and 24% had been cross-examined by their abusive ex-partner in the court.
  • A recently conducted analysis of 357 child contact cases in Canada, in which accusations of parental alienation were involved, found that 42% of the cases also involved allegations of domestic or child abuse. In 77% of these cases, the parental alienation allegation was made by the alleged perpetrator of domestic or child abuse against the non-abusive parent (Neilson, 2018). A review of research and case law on parental alienation commissioned by Cafcass Cymru found a dearth of robust empirical studies. Its review of relevant reported cases between 2013 and 2018 in England and Wales found that a number of the reported cases involved dissatisfied non-resident parents who made unsubstantiated and unproven allegations against the resident parent Doughty, Maxwell and Slater, 2018).

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 domestic abuse 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 abuse.

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 and may start to wet their bed.
  • They may have temper tantrums and problems with school.
  • They may behave as though they are much younger than they are.
  • 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, start to use alcohol or drugs, begin to self-harm by taking overdoses or cutting themselves or 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.

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 abuse 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 abuse does not have to grow up to be an abuser and a girl does not have to become a victim of domestic abuse later in life.

Educational programmes focusing on healthy relationships, and challenging gender inequality, sexual stereotyping, and domestic abuse, 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.

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Getting help and support

If you’re a victim of abuse, find out how you can help your children. Read more.

Find out about other organisations that support children.


Birchall, J. and Choudhry, S. (2018) ‘What about my right not to be abused?’ Domestic abuse, human rights and the family courts. Published online: Women’s Aid

Cafcass and Women’s Aid (2017) Allegations of domestic abuse in child contact cases. London: Cafcass

Doughty, J. Maxwell, N. and Slater. T. (2018) Review of research and case law on parental alienation. Published online. Cafcass Cymru

Neilson, L. (2018) Parental alienation empirical analysis: Child best interests or parental rights? Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research and The FREDA Centre for Research on Violence Against Women and Children

Radford, L., Aitken, R., Miller, P., Ellis, J., Roberts, J., and Firkic, A. (2011) Meeting the needs of children living with domestic violence in London Research report. London: NSPCC and Refuge

Women’s Aid. (2016) Nineteen Child Homicides. Bristol: Women’s Aid

Women’s Aid. (2017) Child First: A call to action one year on. Bristol: Women’s Aid.

Women’s Aid (2018) Survival and Beyond: The Domestic Abuse Report 2017. Bristol: Women’s Aid

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