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.
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.
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.