Parental domestic abuse - How is it for children?

No one thinks enough of the kids – thinks what effect it has on them. It doesn’t just affect the mother – it’s the kids…Because they’re the ones have got to see it and hear it.
-17 year old girl: Humphreys and Mullender, 2000. 

It was the worst part of my life – constantly being shouted at, frightened, living in fear. You will never know what it is like, thinking that every day could be your last day. -16 year old girl: Mullender et al., 2002. 

I used to hide under my bed all week….I used to make a little place out of it with all my teddies. He….always used to buy teddies for us…..and I used to store them under my bed and any time I felt sad or when they were screaming and roaring down in the kitchen. - Buckley, Holt & Whelan, 2007 p300.

I used to fantasise about being a ‘normal’ child. - Saunders, 1995 p8.

Our parents fight a lot and we fear they might split up. They fight when we're upstairs. They don't think we know what's going on, but we do. - 9 year old girl: Unicef, 2006. 

….it is not simply living with violence that automatically causes problems for children, but the kind of life the child lives when viewed in the round……children take their own actions and come to their own conclusions about violence and about their family context . 
- Humphreys & Mullender, undated p17.

Domestic abuse, and the many other problems that exist alongside it, or as a result of it, has a very negative impact on children.  Furthermore, it is not just the abuse which impacts upon children but their hyper-sensitivity and hyper-vigilance to the triggers that usually come just before a violent or abusive incident.  Generally, the research evidence seems clear that feeling unsafe is the primary factor in the fear and anxiety experienced by many children living with domestic abuse. 

An analysis of calls to the English telephone help-line ChildLine concluded that, where children called about domestic violence, they reported feeling helpless, anxious and confused.  Many felt that they couldn’t talk to family members, or did not want to approach others outside of the school as they wanted to keep (or had been told to keep) the violence a secret, whilst some had told someone at school but had not been believed.  Some children reported that they were doing their best to hold their family together or to end the violence; responsibilities which should not be falling on shoulders so young but which are all too common an occurrence for children living in risky family environments such as where there is domestic abuse. 

An Irish study which collected data from 22 children and young people who had lived in violent environments, concluded that children experienced fear and anxiety (to themselves, their siblings and their mothers), feeling different to other children, low self-esteem and problems at school. 

Children’s physical and psychological health, behaviour, emotional well-being, cognitive abilities and attitudes can all be negatively affected, putting them at increased risk of experiencing a range of physical, behavioural, psychological and emotional problems.  In turn, the home environment, performance and relationships at school and relationships with family and friends can be affected.  In particular the impact of the abuse can affect relationships between parents and children and hence the consistency and quality of parenting itself; this can be particularly the case if the parent (usually the mother) is also a victim of the domestic abuse:

An American telephone interview survey of 111 mothers, who were victims of ‘battering’, about the impact on their children (Mbilinyi et al., 2007) confirmed “the seriousness of co-occurring mother and child exposure to violence” (p309) with both parties commonly both injured (deliberately or accidentally) through trying to protect each other from the violence. 

Children can also be affected by living with a parent who is also a victim of domestic abuse, because that parent may be unwell, scared, anxious, depressed and hence unable to focus on their child and the relationship with their child.  Knowing and seeing that their mother is also a victim can heighten children’s feelings of being unsafe and unprotected, or can mean that children doubt their mother’s authority which can impact upon parenting and child behaviour.  The impact of domestic abuse on parenting is clear, but may impact upon mothering and father in different ways.   For example, an Israeli paper discusses this issue of parenting dilemmas for men who abuse women (Peled, 2000). 

Living in such a risky environment puts children at increased risk themselves of developing, in the short- or the long-term, mental health problems (including self-harm), or problems with alcohol and drugs, or behavioural problems such as aggression and even violence.  Research evidence has also identified strong links between domestic abuse and children’s risk of also experiencing other forms of abuse and neglect. 

Kitzman’s meta-analysis of 118 studies investigating the impact of exposure to domestic violence found that those experiencing violence had worse outcomes then ‘control’ groups and similar outcomes to those who had experienced physical abuse.  Another study by Augustyn found that the distress reported by children who had witnessed violence was associated with parental reports of how their children’s behaviour was affected. 

The way in which domestic abuse impacts upon children is influenced by gender and age.  For example, with regards to gender, some studies have demonstrated that boys tend to exhibit more externalising behaviours such as aggression in response to domestic abuse whereas girls tend to display more internalising behaviours such as anxiety and depression.  Some studies have also found that as they get older boys are more likely to become violent themselves whereas girls may learn that violence is to be expected.  However, other studies have reported the opposite effects or no difference with regards to gender, or that children are determined that the abuse should not have a negative impact on them and that they will be nothing like their parent(s). 

When age is considered, many parents feel that, particularly by trying to hide the violence and abuse (e.g. fighting when their children are in bed or sending children into another room of the house), that they are protecting their children from the negative effects of the violence and abuse.  However, research clearly shows that children are more aware of, and therefore more affected by, what is going on around them then some assume:

The impact of domestic abuse upon younger children can be particularly severe.  This is largely because younger children are more likely to be exposed to violence and abuse because they are at home more; furthermore, they are less well equipped to deal with what they see or experience, and lack the cognitive skills or physical development to react or cope in ways which may be more helpful to them. 

A study by Refuge (a UK charity that runs safe houses and other services for women and children who are living with domestic abuse) reported that younger children may exhibit a range of responses to witnessing domestic abuse, including crying, screaming, vomiting, developing new fears, fearing going to the toilet and bed-wetting.  Their speech and language, attention, and behaviour may all be affected.  Cleaver et al’s. 1999 book is a useful reference which provides much more detail on how children of different ages and stages of development can be affected.