The effects of domestic abuse on children

If you have children, you have probably tried to shield them from the domestic abuse 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. In some cases, the children themselves will suffer physical or sexual abuse from the same perpetrator.

Children can witness domestic abuse 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; they may see their mother's physical injuries following an incident of violence or they may even be forced to take part in being verbally abusive to 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 abuse 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 it. They may feel that they are to blame, or – like you – they may feel angry, guilty, insecure, alone, frightened, powerless and confused. They may have ambivalent feelings, both towards the abuser, and towards the non-abusing parent.

Here are some of the symptoms children witnessing domestic abuse can show:

Anxiety or depression Increased displays of aggression
Nightmares or flashbacks Withdrawal from people
Physical symptoms such as tummy ache Low self-esteem and self-worth
Bed-wetting Drugs or alcohol usage
Temper tantrums Self harm eg cutting
Behaviour inconsistent with age Suicidal tendencies
Problems with school including truancy Eating disorders


Abuse may also interfere with your children's social relationships: they may feel unable to invite friends round out of shame, fear or concern about what their friends may see or may be prevented from inviting friends around by the abuser. They may feel guilty and think the abuse 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 what may happen if they go out. Worry, anxiety, disturbed sleep and a lack of concentration can all affect school work.

You may feel that you will be blamed for failing as a parent if you ask for help and you may worry that your children will be taken away from you if you report the abuse. 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.

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 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 abusive.

There are agencies in Cornwall that can offer one-to-one and/or group work support to children who have been affected by abuse:



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