How will my children be affected by the domestic abuse?
If you have children, you have probably tried to shield them from the domestic violence as much as you possibly can. Perhaps you are hoping they do not know it is happening. However, in the majority of families where there are children, and where abuse is being perpetrated, the children will be aware of this, and will often hear it or see it going on. According to the Department of Health, at least 750,000 children a year witness domestic violence. In some cases, the children themselves will suffer physical or sexual abuse from the same perpetrator.
Children can witness domestic violence in a variety of ways. For example, they may be in the same room and may get caught in the middle of an incident, perhaps in an effort to make the violence stop; they may be in another room but be able to hear the abuse or see their mother's physical injuries following an incident of violence; or they may be forced to take part in verbally abusing the victim. Children are completely dependent on the adults around them, and if they do not feel safe in their own homes, this can have many negative physical and emotional effects. All children witnessing domestic violence are being emotionally abused, and this is now recognised as 'significant harm' in recent legislation.
Children will react in different ways to being brought up in a home with a violent person. Age, race, sex, culture, stage of development, and individual personality will all have an effect on a child's responses. Most children, however, will be affected in some way by tension or by witnessing arguments, distressing behaviour or assaults - even if they do not always show this. They may feel that they are to blame, or - like you - they may feel angry, guilty, insecure, alone, frightened, powerless, or confused. They may have ambivalent feelings, both towards the abuser, and towards the non-abusing parent.
These are some of the effects of domestic violence on children:
- They may become anxious or depressed.
- They may have difficulty sleeping.
- They may have nightmares or flashbacks.
- They may complain of physical symptoms such as tummy aches.
- They may start to wet their bed.
- They may have problems at school, or may start truanting.
- They may become aggressive.
- They may internalise their distress and withdraw from other people.
- Older children may start to use alcohol or drugs.
- They may begin to self-harm by taking overdoses or cutting themselves.
- They may develop an eating disorder.
Violence may also interfere with your children's social relationships: they may feel unable to invite friends round (or may be prevented from doing so by the abuser) out of shame, fear, or concern about what their friends may see. They may feel guilty, and think the violence is their fault, or that they ought to be able to stop it in some way. There can be an impact on school attendance and achievement: some children will stay home in an attempt to protect their mother, or because they are frightened about what may happen if they go out. Worry, disturbed sleep and lack of concentration can all affect school work.
You may feel that you will be blamed for failing as a parent, or for asking for help, and you may worry that your children will be taken away from you if you report the violence. But it is acting responsibly to seek help for yourself and your children, and you are never to blame for someone else's abuse. It is important that you - the non-abusing parent - are supported so that in turn you can support your children and ensure that they are safe, and that the effects of witnessing (and perhaps directly experiencing) the violence are addressed.
It is also worth remembering that Domestic Violence is not only about physical abuse. The government defines domestic violence as 'any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, 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. The abuse can encompass, but is not limited to:
Social Workers are not there to take your children away from you. They will work with you to help to end the violence and protect your children. In very rare instances, the children may be taken into care for their own safety. However this is not the usual action taken. The Social care team will work alongside you.
Domestic violence is very broad. However it should be noted that other forms of violence within the home exist which could impact on a child’s health and well-being. The following are examples of abuse that will be considered under domestic violence:
- Female Genital Mutilation
- So-called 'Honour' Based Violence
- Forced Marriage
Children subjected to any of the above are also at risk of harm and need to be protected.
If you are experiencing domestic violence there is support and help available. You can contact one of the organisations below for advice and support for yourself and your family.
The DWP offers help to victims of domestic violence or abuse, read more.
Some mothers and children use silence or denial to try to cope with the abuse. But most children appreciate an opportunity to acknowledge the violence and to talk about what they are feeling. Do talk to your children - and listen to them. Try to be honest about the situation, without frightening them. Reassure them that the violence is not their fault and that they are not responsible for adult behaviour. Explain to them that violence is wrong and that it does not solve problems. Remember, your children will naturally trust you - try not to break that trust by directly lying to them.
Encourage your children to talk about their wishes and feelings. You could do this perhaps by doing an activity together, or encouraging them to draw or write about what is happening and how they feel about it. Your child's teacher may be able to help you with this. Sometimes children will wait until they feel safe and are no longer in the violent environment before they start to talk about their feelings. You could suggest that your children look at the Women's Aid website for children and young people, The Hideout. This website has information, activities, a quiz and stories of children living with domestic violence.
You may believe it is best for your children if you try to keep the family together in order to provide the security of a home and father - despite the ongoing fear, and the emotional and physical abuse. However, children will feel more secure with one parent in a stable environment than with two parents when the environment is unstable and violent.
If you, as a parent, have been violent or abusive to your partner, you need to think very carefully about the impact that this having on your own (or step) children, as well as on your partner. Being a parent means caring for and helping to bring children up safely. Parents are responsible for protecting and keeping their children safe from all harm - including domestic violence or abuse. There is support available to people who want to stop their abusive behaviour.