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 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 [2]
  • Between January 2005 and August 2015 19 children and two women were killed by perpetrators of domestic abuse in circumstances relating to child contact [3]

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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Find out about other organisations that support children

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

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