950,000 children across the UK are affected by domestic abuse, either directly as victims of violence, or indirectly in terms of witnessing violence. For many women, this is the tipping point at which they seek help – in a recent survey of 86 women with children living at Hestia’s refuges, 79% reported they had left their abusive partner because they feared for their children’s safety (Hestia, 2015).
Children are exposed to domestic abuse in multiple ways and may themselves be used as part of the violence.Child maltreatment and domestic abuse frequently co-exist. Since the 1970s, studies have consistently found that among 65-77% of households where women are subject to domestic abuse, children are also physically maltreated. Another report found that 62% of children of individuals supported by their Independent Domestic Violence Advocates (IDVAs) in 2013 were themselves subject to abuse
Exposure to violence at an early age
As one-quarter of children in high-risk situations are under three years old, and the average period before a victim seeks support to leave an abusive relationship is 2.7 years, many very young children have been exposed to severe abuse for much of their early years–a crucial period for early development which influences life chances. Research has shown that infants as young as one year old can experience trauma symptoms as a result of witnessing domestic violence. Symptoms may include eating problems, sleep disturbances, lack of normal responsiveness to adults, mood disturbances and problems interacting with peers and adults. Clinical reports indicate these babies often have poor health, poor sleeping habits or irritability, and exhibit high rates of screaming and crying.
Early personal, social and emotional development has a huge impact on later well-being, learning, achievement and economic circumstances. That is why the Childcare Act 2006 places a duty on local authorities, ‘to improve the well-being of all young children in their area and to reduce the inequalities between them’.
Psychological impacts of exposure to abuse
Witnessing domestic abuse can have long-term consequences for a child. Those who are not direct victims often face some of the same behavioural and psychological problems as children who are physically abused. Witnessing domestic violence is also related to poorer emotional well-being. Emotional responses to abuse vary greatly, but can often include aggression, introversion, secretiveness, self-blame, running away, difficulties at school, bedwetting, nightmares, eating difficulties, self-harm, depression, suicidal ideation and attempted suicide, social isolation, poor social skills and developmental delay.
In a study of 3,614 children aged 12 to 17 years, it was found that exposure to parental violence was associated with an increase in the symptoms of (PTSD) and major depressive symptoms above any effects of gender, age, race, income or history of other traumatic events.
Evidence has also found that children exposed to abuse are also more vulnerable to bullying and may struggle to establish new trusting relationships. One research document found that 53% of children exposed to domestic abuse will either be bullied or bully others. At either end of the spectrum, these long-term impacts could lead children exposed to abuse to dangerous situations as adults. Without specialist targeted interventions, there is a real possibility that this extends into adulthood.
Children who live with domestic abuse are more likely to be exposed to abuse. They may be exposed to a violent and volatile environment if they are being held by a parent during violence, may be in the same room or may be protecting a parent from the violence.
Working together to Safeguard Children (2010) recognises that: “Domestic violence has an impact on children in a number of ways. Children are at increased risk of physical injury during an incident, either by accident or because they attempt to intervene. Even when not directly injured, children are greatly distressed by witnessing the physical and emotional suffering of a parent”.
Ways in which Domestic Abuse can affect children
Children can be affected by domestic abuse in a number of ways:
- Fear and insecurity, low self-esteem
- Sleeping problems
- Acting out violently when experiencing conflicts
- Eating problems
- Speech problems
- Problems relating to other children
- Problems at school
- Early interest in alcohol or drugs
- Early sexual activity
- Depression, withdrawal
- Becoming violence-prone
- Running away
- Becoming embarrassed of their family
- Self-harm or suicide attempts/suicide
- Confusion about gender roles
Teenage boys specifically may learn to believe that all men are violent – if it is the father being abusive:
- They may use violence in their own relationships
- They may attack their own parents
- They may be irresponsible about contraception
- They may be confused or have insecurities about masculinity
Teenage girls, meanwhile may learn that male violence is ‘normal’:
- They may learn an idea that women get no respect – if it is the mother being abusive
- They may see violence in their own relationships as normal
They may become pregnant early in order to escape
British Crime Survey (2008/9). Accessed online on 14th May 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/crime-in-england-and-wales-2009-to-2010-findings-from-the-british-crime-survey-and-police-recorded-crime
Hestia (2015), From Victim to Survivor: A revised study of the obstacles faced by domestic abuse victims in London.
Edleson, J. L. (1999), The overlap between child maltreatment and woman battering
Guy, J et al. (2014), Early intervention in domestic violence and abuse. London: Early Intervention Foundation
CAADA (2014), In plain sight: Effective help for children exposed to domestic abuse. Accessed online on the 21st of May 2015 http://www.safelives.org.uk/sites/default/files/resources/Final%20policy%20report%20In%20plain%20sight%20-%20effective%20help%20for%20children%20exposed%20to%20domestic%20abuse.pdf
Safe Lives (2015), In plain sight: Effective help for children exposed to domestic abuse. Accessed online on 15th May 2015 http://www.safelives.org.uk/sites/default/files/resources/Final%20policy%20report%20In%20plain%20sight%20-%20effective%20help%20for%20children%20exposed%20to%20domestic%20abuse.pdf
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NSPCC (2011) All Babies Count: Prevention and protection for vulnerable babies. Accessed online on 17th of May 2015 http://www.pupprogram.net.au/media/9877/all_babies_count.pdf
Department of Education (2013), Sure Start children’s centres statutory guidance for local authorities, commissioners of local health services and Jobcentre Plus. Accessed online on the 14th of May 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/273768/childrens_centre_stat_guidance_april_2013.pdf
World Health Organization (2002), World Report on Violence and Health. Accessed online http://whqlibdoc.who.int/hq/2002/9241545615.pdf
Buckley (2006), Listen to Me! Children Experience of Domestic Violence Accessed online on June 10th2015 https://www.tcd.ie/childrensresearchcentre/assets/pdf/Publications/listen.pdf Accessed 29th April 2015
Zinzow, H. M. et al. (2009), Prevalence and mental health correlates of witnessed parental and community violence in a national sample of adolescents. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
Lundy, M., & Grossman, S. F. (2005). The mental health and service needs of young children exposed to domestic violence: Supportive data. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, 86, 17-29.
HM Government (2010) Working Together to Safeguard Children: a guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children at page 34, 1.20 www.education.gov.uk/publications/eOrderingDownload/00305-2010DOM-EN-v3.pdf