The effects of children witnessing domestic abuse
It is impossible to prevent children witnessing domestic violence. They may see or hear the abusive episode, be used or even involved in the violence. They will experience the aftermath, and sense the tension in the build-up to the abuse. Even when the parents believe the children were unaware of what was happening, the children can often give detailed accounts of the events.
Sometimes children can be drawn into the domestic violence themselves, either in trying to protect a younger sibling or in trying to protect the parent who is being physically assaulted.
A common feeling amongst parents is that it is somehow better to stay together for the sake of the children, but for children witnessing domestic violence, they would often prefer separation and an end to the tension.
As well as the physical violence often found in abusive relationships, the children will almost certainly be subjected to frequent emotional abuse of the victim in the form of name-calling, accusations and threats made by the abuser in their presence. As mentioned above, where the parent is being abused, the children are also likely to be abused themselves. This is most true of emotional abuse, where the children's own self-esteem is battered by being shouted at, told they are stupid or are not trying hard enough, or given mixed messages by being favoured one moment and put-down the next.
If you have children, you have probably tried to shield them from the domestic violence as much as you 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.
According to the Department of Health, at least 750,000 children a year witness domestic violence. In some cases, the children themselves will suffer physical or sexual abuse from the same perpetrator.
Children will react in different ways to being brought up in a home with a violent person. 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 this. They may feel that they are to blame, or - like you - they may feel angry, guilty, insecure, alone, frightened, or confused.
These are some of the effects of domestic violence on children:
- They may become anxious or depressed
- They may have difficulty sleeping
- They may have nightmares or flashbacks
- They may complain of physical symptoms such as tummy aches
- They may start to wet their bed
- They may have temper tantrums
- They may behave as though they are much younger than they are
- They may have problems at school, or may start truanting
- They may become aggressive
- Older children may start to use alcohol or drugs
- They may develop an eating disorder.
Violence may also interfere with your children's social relationships: they may feel unable to invite friends round (or may be prevented from doing so by the abuser) out of shame, fear, or concern about what their friends may see. They may feel guilty, and think the violence 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 parent, or because they are frightened what may happen if they go out. Worry, disturbed sleep and lack of concentration can all affect school work.
Ask for help
You may feel that you will be blamed for failing as a parent, or for asking for help, and you may worry that your children will be taken away from you if you report the violence. 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.