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.[1]
  • On just one day in 2016, two thirds of women living in refuge had a child or children with them (63.8% of 2,017 women) and 6.2% (of 2,017 women) were pregnant (responses from 131 services).[2]
  • Domestic violence can co-exist with child abuse, through direct abuse of children in addition to their exposure to the abuse of their mothers. One study found that 34.4% of under-18s who had lived with domestic violence had also been abused or neglected by a parent or guardian. (From a sample representative of the population in the UK.) [3]
  • A study of 175 final reports from Serious Case Reviews (a SCR takes place after a child dies or is seriously injured and abuse or neglect is thought to have been involved) found that about 54% of cases featured domestic abuse. It also found many cases that featured contexts of coercive control, which created significant barriers to women reporting their own or their children’s suffering. [4]
  • 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).[5] A Women’s Aid review of SCRs published since August 2015 highlighted at least one more case falling into this category.[6]
  • According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, young women aged 16 – 19 are most likely to be victims of any domestic abuse – one in ten (10.0%) have experienced domestic abuse within the last year. It should be noted that this nationally representative survey currently stops at age 59 for its domestic abuse section. [7]
  • A survey of 4564 young people across five European countries, including England, found that two thirds (66%) of young women aged 14 – 17 who have been in an intimate relationship report experiencing one or more types of abuse from an intimate partner.[8]


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
  • 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.

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.

Learn more about our safe child contact campaign, Child First

Further information and support

If would like more information about domestic abuse go to:  The Survivor’s Handbook

If you or a friend need help call the National Domestic Violence Helpline (run in partnership with Refuge) 0808 2000 247


[1] Radford, L, Aitken, R, Miller, P, Ellis, J, Roberts, J, and Firkic, A, Meeting the needs of children living with domestic violence in London Research report Refuge/NSPCC research project Funded by the City Bridge Trust November 2011 (London: NSPCC and Refuge, 2011), p. 9

[2] Women’s Aid Annual Survey, 2016

[3] Radford, L, Aitken, R, Miller, P, Ellis, J, Roberts, J, and Firkic, A, Meeting the needs of children living with domestic violence in London Research report Refuge/NSPCC research project Funded by the City Bridge Trust November 2011 (London: NSPCC and Refuge, 2011), p. 101

[4] Sidebotham, P, et al, Pathways to harm, pathways to protection: a triennial analysis of serious case reviews 2011-2014 (Published online: Department for Education, 2016), pp.76 and 78. 94 out of 175 (54%).

Serious Case Reviews (SCRs) are undertaken by Local Safeguarding Children Boards when abuse or neglect of a child is known or suspected and either the child has died or has been seriously harmed.

[5] Women’s Aid, Nineteen Child Homicides (Bristol: Women’s Aid, 2016)

[6] Women’s Aid, Child First: A call to action one year on (Bristol: Women’s Aid, 2017)

[7] Office for National Statistics, Crime Survey for England and Wales, year ending March 2016.

[8] STIR. Safeguarding Teenage Intimate Relationships Research Report (Published online, 2015)

© 2015 Women's Aid Federation of England – Women’s Aid is a company limited by guarantee registered in England No: 3171880.

Women’s Aid is a registered charity in England No. 1054154

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