Research shows that children experiencing domestic abuse can be negatively affected in every aspect of their functioning – safety, health, school attendance, school achievement and emotional development. Children suffer both directly and indirectly when living in households where there is domestic violence.
The majority of children witness the violence that is occurring, and in 90% of cases they are in the same or next room (Hughes, 1992)
Domestic violence is likely to have a damaging effect on the health and development of children. Children living in families where they are exposed to domestic violence have been shown to be at risk of behavioural, emotional, physical, cognitive-functioning, attitude and long-term developmental problems.
Children can ‘witness’ domestic violence in many different ways. For example, they may get caught in the middle of an incident in an effort to make the violence stop. They may be in the room next door and hear the abuse or see their mothers physical injuries following an incident of violence. They may be forced to stay in another room. They may be forced to witness abuse including sexual abuse or they may be forced to take part in verbally abusing the victim. As with adult victims, children are also victims of the control; the way they behave, feelings, reactions, etc. Each child will respond differently to the trauma.
These are some of the effects described in a briefing by the Royal College of Psychiatrists 2004:
- They may become anxious or depressed
- They may have difficulty sleeping
- They have nightmares or flashbacks
- They can be easily startled
- 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 with school
- They may become aggressive or internalise their distress and withdraw from other people
- They may have a lowered sense of self-worth
- Older children may begin to truant or start to use alcohol or drugs
- They may begin to self-harm
- They may have an eating disorder
- They may become extremely loud or extremely quiet
Children may also feel angry, guilty, insecure, alone, frightened, powerless or confused. They may feel unsure about their feelings towards both the abuser and the non-abusing parent.
Effects of domestic abuse on children can be physical, psychological and emotional. These effects will be determined by:
- How old the child is
- The severity of violence
- The length of time that the abuse has been happening
- Whether or not they are directly abused
- How much violence they have witnessed
- The support that they get from other people
Effects may become more acute after leaving the abusive relationship because of difficulties with contact.
A study of 200 women’s experiences of domestic violence commissioned by National Women’s Aid, found that 60% of the women had left because they feared that they or their children would be killed by the perpetrator. (Humphreys & Thiara, 2002).
At least 750,000 children a year witness domestic violence. Nearly three quarters of children on the ‘at risk’ register live in households where domestic violence occurs” (Health, 2002)
Children who live with domestic violence are at increased risk of behavioural problems and emotional trauma, and mental health difficulties in adult life. (Kolbo, et al., 1996; Morley and Mullender, 1994; Hester et al., 2000)
52% of child protection cases involve domestic violence. (Department of Health, 2002; Farmer and Owen, 1995).
70% of children living in UK refuges have been abused by their father. (Bowker et al., 1998)
A study by NSPCC and Sugar Magazine in 2005 of 2000 girls (averaging 15 years old) showed;
- 43% believed it to be acceptable for a boyfriend to be aggressive
- 33% said that cheating would justify violence
- 33% had experienced domestic violence in the home
- 16% had already been hit by a boyfriend
30% of domestic violence starts in pregnancy. (Lewis and Drife, 2001, 2005; McWilliams and McKiernan, 1993)