“In a perpetrator’s relentless efforts to ‘break’ the mother they are also committing child abuse.”
The devastating effects of domestic violence on women is well documented. Far less is known about the impact on children who witness a parent or caregiver being subjected to domestic abuse.
Research has shown that children who witness domestic abuse are affected in similar ways to children who have been physically abused.
What do children need?
We know the answer from our own childhoods. First and foremost, children need a safe and secure home, free of domestic abuse, and parents that love and protect them. They need to have a sense of routine and stability, so that when things go wrong in the outside world, home is a place of comfort, help and support.
For too many children, home is far from a safe haven. Every year, hundreds of millions of children are exposed to domestic abuse at home, and this has a powerful and profound impact on their lives and hopes for the future. These children might have not only watched one parent violently assaulting the other, but often hear the distressing sounds of violence, or may be aware of it from many tell-tale signs.
Children who are exposed to domestic abuse in the home may have difficulty learning and limited social skills, exhibit violent, risky or delinquent behaviour, or suffer from depression or severe anxiety.
The trauma of witnessing domestic abuse may vary according to a multitude of factors including, but not limited to, age, race, sex and stage of development but can include:
• Becoming anxious or depressed
• Having difficulty sleeping
• Having nightmares or flashbacks
• They can be easily startled
• They may complain of physical symptoms such as tummy aches and may start to wet their bed
• They may have temper tantrums and problems with school
• They may behave as though they are much younger than they are
• 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, start to use alcohol or drugs, begin to self-harm by taking overdoses or cutting themselves or have an eating disorder.
Children need a safe and secure home environment.
Children who are exposed to domestic abuse in the home are denied their right to a safe and stable home environment. Many are suffering silently, and with little support. Children who are exposed to violence in the home need trusted adults to turn to for help and comfort, and services that will help them to cope with their experiences.
Children must have it re-affirmed that domestic abuse is wrong. They have to see alternative role models in order to grow up with a positive idea of relationships and the future.
Far more must be done to protect our children and to prevent domestic abuse from happening in the first place.
Do children grow up to be abusers and/or victims?
The “cycle of violence” otherwise known as the “intergenerational theory” is often referred to when considering the effects of domestic abuse on children; however research findings are not consistent, and there is no automatic cause and effect relationship.
A boy who has witnessed domestic abuse does not have to grow up to be an abuser and a girl does not have to become a victim of domestic abuse later in life.
Educational programmes in our schools
Educational programmes focusing on healthy relationships and challenging gender inequality, sexual stereotyping, and domestic abuse, should be integrated with work on anti-bullying and conflict resolution as a mandatory part of the PHSE curriculum in all schools. These would act as important preventive measures.
Public policies and laws that protect our children
Legislation and policies must reinforce the message that domestic abuse is a crime, that perpetrators will be punished and victims protected. These policies must focus on the protection of children and address the impacts of domestic abuse in the home on children. Criminalising domestic abuse sends a clear message that it is not a private matter and is unacceptable and needs to be eradicated.
It is essential that protective laws are enforced and offenders held accountable. Courts and government departments must have specialised policies in place to address the safety of adult victims of domestic abuse and their children, including in connection with custody and visitation rights, as this could still put children at risk. The particular impact of domestic abuse on children must be taken into account by all government agencies responding to abuse in the home.