What is it like for children?

I think we blamed ourselves for the violence because he used to hit her [mum] if he didn’t have money for drink, be we were eating the money [because] it was for food” Saunders, 1995 p9
Dad gets drunk every day, he hits me and Mum….we don’t provoke him…he broke my arm once. If I have bruises he locks me in the house and stops me going to school. He says that if we ever tell anyone he will kill us…I’m scared….it’s getting worse. Childline, 1997 p23

[She] described how her mummy went out drinking almost every night. If her mummy was drunk she usually got hit. She had to look after her younger brothers and sisters because, ‘Mummy’s often in bed all morning’ . Childline, 1997 p24

There is a lack of good research that has spoken directly with children about what it is like to live in risky family environments. One UK literature review (Gorin, 2004) summarised the research that has been conducted with children living with parental violence and/or parental substance misuse and/or parental mental health problems. They key points from this review can be summarised as follows:

Understanding children’s experiences

Children are usually more aware of what is going on than parents realise, though their understanding may not match their awareness. This brings confusion and unpredictability.

Witnessing, hearing or being involved with violence and conflict can be particularly troublesome.

Children can find themselves taking on a range of varied and complex caring roles in the home, sometimes without choice and often meaning that they need to demonstrate maturity beyond their years.
The home environment can have a huge knock-on impact in terms of school attendance and performance, and making and maintaining friends. This can lead to isolation and the ‘loss of childhood’.

Understanding children’s feelings

Children can have ‘torn’ feelings – feeling love and loyalty to their parents, even in difficult and violent situations, but also feeling shame, hurt and resentment.

Children worry more than anyone might recognise, and can be particularly concerned if the health, lives or safety of their parents is threatened.

It can be hard for children to understand and accept why life at home centres on the misuse and / or the violence, and on their parents.

Children can feel a great deal of loss about what is going on – for example, because their parents are physically or emotionally distant, are not able to be children, because they lose their home, their possessions, and opportunities in life.

All these feelings are exacerbated by stigma and secrecy.

Understanding coping

How children cope varies enormously, according to their age, gender or the nature of what is going on at home. Siblings may often cope very differently to each other. Avoidance or distraction is common, but this can mean that it is harder to identify and support children, resulting in greater isolation.

Protecting others or actively intervening is also common.

When accessed, children generally say that talking to others is helpful and positively influences their coping.

Understanding support needs

Children, especially boys, can find it hard to talk to others.

Children are less bothered about what the help is or where it comes from, but find the personal qualities of the helper really important.

It can be hard for children to access professional support, and children speak less positively about professional support. Many children find great benefit from informal support (e.g. from family and friends).

Children want support that is confidential and comes with opportunities to get away from home e.g. to be children, have fun and meet other people in similar situations.

Concluding Points

Children chose their words carefully when describing what is going on at home. They perceive themselves as people with certain roles and responsibilities in their family.

Children have very high levels of awareness, and hence worry associated with that awareness, about what is going on. Children will spend a lot of time trying to understand and make sense of what is going on, and consider solutions.

Powerfully, children can display and develop great resilience to the problems, channelling their energy into thinking about the present and the future rather than dwelling on the past.

Given the various needs and responsibilities held by many children, it is important to involve them in decision-making.

Lack of communication is a key issue for children, who want age appropriate services, opportunities and information.

*Taken from Gorin S (2004). Understanding what children say. Children’s experiences of domestic violence, parental substance misuse and parental health problems. London National Children’s Bureau.

Many of the problems that children and young people experience as a result of parental alcohol misuse and parental violence and aggression are the same (Galvani summarises the many parallels in how children may be negatively affected by parental alcohol problems and parental domestic abuse [follow the link below], but co-existing violence and aggression alongside alcohol misuse can greatly increases the negative impact of the behaviour in all areas – including child development,parenting and outcomes for children.

Sarah Galvani:Safeguarding children: working with parental alcohol problems and domestic abuse (pdf)

Some differences in how boys and girls cope, and how children of different ages cope, have been identified. For example, boys are more likely to display ‘externalised’ behaviours such as aggression whilst girls are more likely to display ‘internalised’ behaviours such as withdrawal. Children and young people are also at risk of themselves developing alcohol (or drug), or mental health, problems, or of becoming aggressive and violent.

The book by Cleaver, Unell & Aldgate (1999) is an excellent source for reading more about the impact of parental alcohol and drugs use, parental domestic violence and parental mental health problems on children’s development at different stages.

Children may be affected by :

  • Increased negative impact as a result of co-existing issues – other problems may also be present
    Insecure home life; parenting
  • Difficulties with attachment
  • Increased fear of loss and bereavement
  • Psychological difficulties
  • Risk being a victim of abuse / violence
  • Being included in violence to another
  • Negative emotions such as shame and guilt
  • Distorted views on relationships, gender, power and control
  • Distorted views on family life, coping strategies and display of emotions
  • Taking on caring role – behaviours, emotions and involvement beyond their years 

Chilren may experience:

  • Difficulties related to education – such as poor school attendance; lower education performance;feeling marginalised by education system; arriving late; regularly changing schools; being bullied or a bully
  • Lack of interest in child, interests and achievements from parents
  • High levels of anxiety – impact upon concentration
  • Disrupted sleep
  • Not being provided for adequately by parents due to poor parenting, neglect or use of family resources to support substance misuse
  • Broken promises
  • Fear of what will happen to parents
  • Early initiation to SM, development of SM, development of MH or other physical, psychological or behavioural problems

    Taken from Evans, 2006 p66 with changes and additions made for this website