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 children are victims of domestic abuse, not just witnesses, and 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.
Contact with the abusive parent
The big issue for parents who have separated from an abusive person is contact between their child and the child’s other parent/step-parent. Before making arrangements, there are some things that should be considered.
- Is it safe for the victim or their children to see the other parent?
- Do the children want to see their other parent? If yes, for how long and how often would be appropriate?
- Even if it is safe for the child, does the victim feel safe? If the victim doesn’t feel safe or doesn’t want to see the other parent, the child could see them at the home of someone the victim can trust or at a contact centre.
- If the victim and the children feel safe seeing their other parent, where would be a good place to meet? The meeting could be in a place that is neutral and safe (for example, a local park, local outdoor/indoor playground).
- If contact stopped but is starting again, how could the victim help the child with this change? Perhaps the victim could take things slowly by having some short visits first.
- Is there is a chance that the victim and their child’s other parent might argue or fight?
- Is it likely that the child might feel upset or worried about arguments when they see the two of them together? Having a contact centre or mutual friend to do the handover can sometimes be less confusing and scary for the child.
Very young children will not necessarily understand what is going on, but as they get older, the child will probably start to see and talk about the contact visits. It’s important to give the child lots of chances to talk about their feelings and to support them and respond to their worries in simple words.
It’s important to get further legal advice and/or counselling if there are concerns about the victim or their child’s safety.
Supporting a child
Most people worry about how they can talk to their child about difficult issues such as a parent/partner’s abuse, the child’s behaviour or school performance. The child does not have to witness abuse first-hand to be affected by it. If they know that another family member has hurt the victim physically or emotionally, they might be very sad and confused. Depending on their age, the child might also feel betrayed, hurt and angry.
Approaches that may help parents
- Discuss the situation using words that suit their age.
- Give them lots of care, affection and comfort.
- Give them lots of reassurance that the abuse or separation is not their fault.
- Do everything that can be done to help them live safely and securely.
- Watch their behaviour and play, for example, how they share and how they deal with not getting their way.
- Listen to them and allow them to share their feelings; tell them that it’s okay to feel what they are feeling.
- Encourage the child to talk about their feelings, worries and understanding of the situation.
- Talk with the child about ways of showing feelings, especially about safe ways of showing anger. Make this specific and suitable for their age. For example, “It’s not okay to scream and kick friends at nursery/school” or “It’s not okay to hit someone”.
- Let them know what is okay and not okay behaviour.
- Consider whether counselling might help the child.
- Tell the child what to do if they feel unsafe.
- Tell the child what to do if anyone ever hurts them (for example, ‘Tell mummy/daddy or tell a teacher”).
- If the victim has left the family, it may help the child to say ‘we are safe now.’
- Encourage them to talk about what happens at school and when they’re playing with their friends, but don’t push them to name friends.
- Tell the child when they do something well.
- Identify and encourage positive behaviours, preferably straight away. For example, “It was great that you asked Tom/Jane to play with you”.
- Help the child to participate in activities that they enjoy and are good at e.g. football, gym, music.
Activities to support the child with expressing how they feel
- Drawing and painting are great ways to encourage a child to talk about how they are feeling especially if they are young. Sit down with the child and while drawing, or afterwards, ask the child to talk about their drawing. Often, children will express a lot this way, which opens up possibilities to talk about changes, feelings and worries. If the child draws something that is worrying, ask them about it. Ask the child to draw a picture of:
- Their family doing something together
- Their new house and/or their old house
- A picture of themselves
- Themselves at school
- Dream drawings – draw a person sleeping in bed, dreaming. This could be shown by a large cartoon-like thinking-bubble. Ask the child to draw in the bubble what they think the person might be dreaming, or ask the child to draw the person’s good dream and bad dream. Ask the child to talk about their drawing. Ask if they have ever had those types of dreams. This is another playful and gentle way of opening up possibilities to talk about things, especially if children are having nightmares.
- Paper plate faces – ask the child to draw faces showing different feelings on the paper plates (happy, angry/mad, sad, scared). Join in too and make a game of the whole activity. These become masks that can be used to show and maybe talk about how the child feels about a place, a person, or about things that happen. Ask the child:
- Which face do you have on when you go to school?
- Which face do you have on when it’s bedtime?
- Which face do you have on when you see mum/dad?
- Why do you have your happy/sad face on at school?
- Let them ask you questions too.
Remember the child needs love and understanding in what in their eyes is a confusing and frightening situation. Professionals working with children, including doctors, nurses, teachers and social workers, should make themselves available for the child to talk to, and offer the help and advice they need.
Safety planning with children
It’s really important that children and young people know what they can do to stay safe if there is violence and abuse in the home. This short video, “Mikey & Jools Keep Safe” from Cedar Network is really useful for outlining what children should/shouldn’t do if there is an incident at home.
It is helpful if the child can tell a trusted adult about what is happening at home. Ideally this would be someone they can contact if they need help or someone to talk to, or if there’s an emergency and they don’t feel able to call 999 safely. They can make up a code word so that in an emergency they can say that word or phrase and the trusted adult will know the child needs them to call the police.
Make sure that the person helping knows the child’s address and phone number, and that they’ve agreed on what they should do when the child calls.
Talking to someone can be helpful for children and young people when exploring their feelings and the impact of what is happening at home. Services for children and young people are listed on our website here.
Finding a safe place
Children should not try and intervene if someone is being abusive or violent towards another person. They should identify a room in the house where they feel safe, such as their bedroom, and siblings may want to be in that place together.
If the room has a phone in, they can call the police on 999 or if they have a mobile, they should use that.
The child might feel they need to leave the house. Having a friend, neighbour or another relative that they can go to if things are not safe at home can be helpful. Some young people also leave a change of clothing there so they can stay a while until it is safe to go home.
Further reading and resources
- Saving Brains, A Grand Challenge – this video from Dr Mike Evans talks about child brain development and creating positive outcomes for children.
- Patchy, piecemeal and precious: support for children affected by domestic abuse – Action for Children, 2019
- What we can do about toxic stress – Center on the Developing Child
- We Matter Too: Disabled Young People and Domestic Abuse – Ann Craft Trust, 2019
- Childhood vulnerability in numbers – Children’s Commissioner, 2019. This report highlights the number of children living with vulnerabilities, and what these are, in the UK.
- Working Together to Safeguard Children – Department for Education, 2018. This guide outlines inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.
- Protecting children from domestic abuse – NSPCC, 2021. The NSPCC website offers a wealth of information on recognising and addressing domestic abuse issues in children.
- It’s Not OK from the NSPCC helps children and young people recognise concerning behaviour and identify characteristics of positive relationships. The lesson plans, films and accompanying activities cover what behaviours to look out for and how to respond to it.
- Love Life is a set of resources for young people with learning disabilities from the NSPCC. The films and supportive resources are aimed at young people aged 11-25 to help them learn strategies for staying safe as they grow up and gain independence. There are also resources supporting adults to start conversations with young people on topics like relationships, feelings and safety.
- Identification and initial response to children’s exposure to intimate partner violence: a qualitative synthesis of the perspectives of children, mothers and professionals – Lewis NV, Feder GS, Howarth E, et al., 2018.
- Guidance for multi-agency forums: Safeguarding children effectively – SafeLives, 2018. This guidance includes ideas for researching cases, sharing information and action planning when working with domestic abuse cases involving children.
- Children Power and Control Wheel is a tool that can help engage with victim/survivor parents about how domestic abuse affects children.
- Relationships, health and sex education: guides for parents – Department for Education, 2019. These guides are for parents of primary and secondary age pupils in England explaining the teaching of these important topics.
- Why is safeguarding important in schools? – Online DBS, 2019.
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