Domestic Violence – the effect on children and young people

What is domestic abuse?

Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. This can encompass, but is not limited to, the following types of abuse:

  • psychological
  • physical
  • sexual
  • financial
  • emotional

‘Controlling behaviour is: a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.

Coercive behaviour is: an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.’ (Home Office (2013) Information for Local Areas on the change to the Definition of Domestic Violence and Abuse)

Examples of Abusive behaviours include

  • Psychological / Emotional Abuse – intimidation and threats (e.g. about children or family pets), social isolation, verbal abuse, humiliation, constant criticism, enforced trivial routines, marked over intrusiveness;
  • Physical violence – slapping, pushing, kicking, stabbing, damage to property or items of sentimental value, attempted murder or murder;
  • Physical restriction of freedom – controlling who the target of abuse or their child/ren see or where they go, what they wear or do, stalking, imprisonment, forced marriage;
  • Sexual violence – any non-consensual sexual activity, including rape, sexual assault, coercive sexual activity or refusing safer sex; and
  • Financial abuse – stealing, depriving or taking control of money, running up debts, withholding benefits books or bank cards.

The impact of domestic violence on children

The most significant risk factor for children exposed to domestic abuse is that they experience physical abuse which could result in their death.

The risks to children living with domestic violence include:

  • Death as a result of physical abuse
  • Direct physical or sexual abuse of the child. Research shows this happens in up to 60% of cases; also that the severity of the violence against the abused parent/carer is predictive of the severity of abuse to the children;
  • The child being abused as part of the abuse against the abused parent: Being used as ‘pawns’ or ‘spies’ by the abusive partner in attempts to control the abused parent/carer;
  • Being forced to participate in the abuse and degradation by the abusive partner.
  • Emotional abuse and physical injury to the child from witnessing the abuse: Hearing abusive verbal exchanges between adults in the household;
  • Hearing the abusive partner verbally abuse, humiliate and threaten violence;
  • Observing bruises and injuries sustained by their abused parent;
  • Hearing their abused parent/carer’s screams and pleas for help;
  • Observing the abusive partner being removed and taken into police custody;
  • Witnessing their abused parent/carer being taken to hospital by ambulance;
  • Attempting to intervene in a violent assault;
  • Being physically injured as a result of intervening or by being accidentally hurt whilst present during a violent assault.
  • Negative material consequences for a child of domestic violence:
  • Being unable or unwilling to invite friends to the house;
  • Frequent disruptions to social life and schooling from moving with their mother fleeing violence;
  • Hospitalisation of the abused parent/carer and/or their permanent disability.

Children who witness domestic violence

Children who witness domestic violence suffer emotional and psychological maltreatment (Note: Section 31 Children Act 1989: impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill treatment of another [amended by the Adoption and Children Act 2002]). They tend to have low self-esteem and experience increased levels of anxiety, depression, anger and fear, aggressive and violent behaviours, including bullying, lack of conflict resolution skills, lack of empathy for others and poor peer relationships, poor school performance, anti-social behaviour, pregnancy, alcohol and substance misuse, self-blame, hopelessness, shame and apathy, post-traumatic stress disorder – symptoms such as hyper-vigilance, nightmares and intrusive thoughts – images of violence, insomnia, enuresis and over protectiveness of their mother and/or siblings.

The impact of domestic violence on children is similar to the effects of any other abuse or trauma and will depend upon such factors as:

  • The severity and nature of the violence;
  • The length of time the child is exposed to the violence;
  • Characteristics of the child’s gender, ethnic origin, age, disability, socio economic and cultural background;
  • The warmth and support the child receives in their relationship with their non-abusive parent, siblings and other family members;
  • The nature and length of the child’s wider relationships and social networks; and
  • The child’s capacity for and actual level of self-protection.

The impact of domestic violence on unborn children

30% of domestic violence begins or escalates during pregnancy. The expectant mother may be prevented from seeking or receiving proper ante-natal or post-natal care. In addition, if the mother is being abused this may affect her attachment to her child, more so if the pregnancy is a result of rape by her partner.

Links for more information

Women’s Aid have also created a website called The Hideout to help children and young people to understand domestic abuse