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Supporting children and young people

The overlap between domestic and child abuse is estimated at between 45-70% and enquiries into child deaths indicate that violence towards women may coincide with their children being at greatest risk of suffering significant harm or death. Research has also indicated a raised incidence of child sexual abuse in households where the woman is subject to violence.

Living with domestic abuse can adversely affect a woman’s ability to meet her children’s emotional needs and can potentially put children at risk of neglect. This is likely to be elevated where there are additional problems and stressors within the family, particularly in relation to addiction issues, chaotic lifestyles, homelessness and mental health issues.  The vulnerability of children within these situations is heightened and requires careful assessment.  Some groups of children have additional needs: for example, children affected by disability, children from minority ethnic groups or for whom English is not their first language.

Whilst the existence of domestic abuse does not necessarily require the instigation of child protection procedures, it should significantly increase concern by any professional given the evidence of overlap between the abuse of women and the abuse of children, along with the impact of experiencing domestic abuse on the child.

If a victim is identified as at high risk of serious harm then it is likely that there is also a high risk to the child and swift action should be taken by following child protection procedures. If there are no significant current indicators of risk of harm to the adult victim, there still may be an impact or risk to the child and therefore it is advisable to still assess the risk to the child. This should include an assessment of the extent to which they are exhibiting signs of distress, emotional disturbance or behavioural difficulties which may be associated with domestic abuse.  The possibility of direct harm to the child by abuse from the perpetrator should also be investigated.  There should be vigilance around issues such as threats to harm children, emotional manipulation of them, destruction of toys, harm to pets etc which indicate a propensity for harm.  Assessment of developmental progress should also be undertaken to explore possible negative impacts of abuse.

How are children involved in domestic abuse?

In a relationship where there is domestic abuse, children will witness the abuse in a number of different ways. They may see or hear or even be involved in the abuse. People may believe that children are unaware of what was happening, but they can often remember it exactly. Besides possible physical abuse, children will almost certainly suffer emotional abuse by being shouted at, told they are stupid or are not trying hard enough, or are given mixed messages by being favoured one moment and put-down the next. These emotionally damaging actions often have a long-lasting effect on the children.

The following video from the NSPCC advises on how to listen and respond to children who are disclosing domestic abuse:

How are children affected by domestic abuse?

It is very upsetting for children to see one of their parents/step-parent/parent’s partner abusing or attacking the other either physically or emotionally. How the child is affected depends on each individual child, their age and gender, how much they witness and whether or not they are personally involved in the abuse. Domestic abuse is relevant to the child’s present and future well-being, and there is a significant overlap with child abuse.

Typical behavioural problems exhibited by children living with domestic abuse:

Babies: excessive crying, failure to gain weight, asthma or other allergies, exaggerated startle responses/stiffness, sad facial expressions, lack of interest

Toddlers: aggression to adults and peers/defiance and non-compliance, reckless and accident prone, nightmares/insomnia, emotional withdrawal/late speech development, asthma or other allergies

Children and young people: depression/anxiety, rejection of authority, aggression and anger, anti-social behaviour/early experimentation with drugs, eating disorders, school failure/lack of concentration, unable to make friends, insomnia and/or nightmares/bed-wetting.

Long-term effects on children

Children may copy the behaviour of their parents. For example, depending on the nature of the abuse in the family, a boy may learn from his father to be abusive to women while a girl may learn from her mother that abuse is to be expected, and something you just have to put up with.

Of course, children don’t always behave in the same way as their parents when they grow up. Many children don’t like what they see, and try very hard not to make the same mistakes as their parents.

Even so, children from abusive families often grow up feeling anxious and depressed, and find it difficult to get on with other people. Older children will often hold themselves responsible for the abuse, especially where extreme abuse has been an issue.

Remember that even where the child is ‘only’ witnessing abuse, it can affect not only the child’s well-being during or shortly after the abuse, but also the child’s ability to build and maintain healthy relationships in their adult life.

We need your help to continue our work reducing the risk of domestic abuse. Find out more about how you can get involved!