How can my children be affected by domestic abuse?

If you have children, you have probably tried to shield them from the domestic abuse as much as you possibly can.

Perhaps you are hoping they do not know it is happening. Sadly even by doing all you can to protect them, you or anyone else cannot stop the abuser from continuing, so remember that it is never your fault.

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.

Domestic abuse 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 per cent) children and young people under the age of 18 will have lived with domestic violence at some point in their childhood.

Children can witness domestic abuse in a variety of ways:

  • 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 abusive 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.

Abuse 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 abuse 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.

It’s not your fault; seeking help is being a good parent

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 abuse. 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 abuse are addressed.

Research has consistently shown that a high proportion of children living with domestic abuse 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.)

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.

Seek advice from Women’s Aid or another domestic abuse organisation, or from social services or other agencies that are there to assist and protect children.

You may want to talk to your local Women’s Aid organisation, or to the Freephone 24 Hour National Domestic Violence Helpline (run in partnership between Women’s Aid and Refuge) on 0808 2000 247 to help you decide what you should do next.

Social workers will not take your children away if they can work with you to make sure they are safe.

Sometimes one of your children may become aggressive or abusive towards you or others in the family.

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: clc@essex.ac.uk

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 charity Young Mind’s Parent helpline on 0808 802 5544 Monday to Friday between 9:30am-4pm.

Back to The Survivor’s Handbook


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] Department of Health (2002) ‘Women’s Mental Health: Into the Mainstream: Strategic development of mental health care for women’ (London: DH)

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