Effect on children

How does domestic violence affect children and young people?
Adults often think that children and young people aren’t really affected by the violence if they don’t see all the fighting. However this isn’t true. Even if a child or young person doesn’t see the shouting or the hitting, they’ve probably heard it or maybe they’ve seen their parent bruised or upset after an argument. Many children and young people are at home, sometimes in the same room when the fighting is happening. In 90% of cases of domestic violence the children or young people are in the same or next room (Hughes, 1992). There is also a higher risk that some children and young people will be abused also.
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” (Dept. of Health, 2002)
Children and young people can ‘witness’ domestic violence in a 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 mother’s physical injuries following an incident of violence. They may be forced to stay in one room or may not be allowed to play. They may be forced to witness sexual abuse or they may be forced to take part in verbally abusing the victim.
All children and young people witnessing domestic violence are being emotionally abused. Understandably, children and young people who have or are experiencing domestic violence will feel many different emotions. Each child or young person will deal with their emotions differently.
Are there any physical signs?
Children and young people can experience both short and long term cognitive, behavioural and emotional effects. Each child/young person will respond differently to trauma and some may be resilient and not show signs of any negative effects.
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 they may internalise their distress and withdraw from other people
• They may have a lowered sense of self-worth
• Older children may begin to play truant or start to use alcohol or drugs
• They may begin to self-harm by taking overdoses or cutting themselves
• They may have an eating disorder
Children and young people may also feel angry, guilty, insecure, alone, frightened, powerless or confused. They may have ambivalent feelings towards both the abuser and the non-abusing parent.
It’s important to remember that these signs could also be an indicator that something else is going on in there lives not just domestic violence.
Will children or young people grow up to become an abuser?
Many children and young people who grow up with domestic violence in their homes are afraid that they will also become an abuser or a victim of domestic violence. This does not have to be true! There are many, many children and young people who grow up in homes with domestic violence and do not turn into abusers or victims themselves.
It’s really important to remember that an individual is in control of who they want to be and how they want to behave.
If you are working with a child or young person who is living with, or lived with domestic violence and abuse make sure that they talk to someone about what they’ve seen, what their worries are and what’s happening either to them or at home.
It’s normal that they may withdraw, feel upset, angry and confused, but what you can do is support them in expressing these feelings more positively, in ways that are not abusive or damaging to themselves or those around them.