How domestic abuse effects children

Children and Young Person’s Therapist at Broxtowe Women’s Project (BWP), Georgina Rolfe, talks us through the affects domestic abuse has on children.

We can all imagine the image that comes to mind, when we think about the impacts of domestic abuse on children. Adverts portraying a child hiding from the violence in another room, but still the child hears, senses and imagines what is going on.

In relationships where there is domestic violence and abuse, children witness about three-quarters of the abusive incidents.

This ongoing exposure to parental conflicts, violence and abusive behaviours creates an unsafe feeling in their homes and unsafe in the care of the abuser.

This experience of feeling unsafe in the care of their parents can have both short term and long-term effects on children. Although each child is unique and the ways that they are impacted by the abuse can depend on many variables. I will go on to explore some of the most prevalent on-going impacts of domestic abuse.

When a chid is in an abusive or traumatic experience, they will have little resources to draw from to protect themselves.

To help themselves cope with the abuse they may then learn new ways to keep safe, get their needs met and feel seen and heard by their caregivers, this could look like:

Learning to adapt to protect themselves from abuse

This can look like over compliance, peacekeeping and seeking to protect their parents emotionally or physically. This is often seen as child- parent role reversal. A child will learn how to please a parent in order to maintain that closeness with the parent. This can also look like a over sense of responsibility for the abuse or over protectiveness for their parent.

A child may appear: overly mature for their age, struggle to express internal thoughts and feelings, difficulties meeting their own needs.

Self-blame, over sense of responsibility

Domestic abuse involves emotional and psychological abuse, controlling and coercive behaviours and emotional manipulation. A child will not be aware that their parent’s behaviour is abusive and that the responsibility for their parents’ behaviours is not theirs. Language plays a big part in this “you make me (input emotions a child has no intent in activating)” or “you are (input self-limiting belief)”.

This language and behaviours can make a child internalise a sense of responsibility for their parents’ emotions and actions.

A child may appear with low self-esteem, self-limiting beliefs, high levels of self-criticism, perfectionism, fear of failure, quick to self-blame and feelings of guilt and shame.

Signs and symptoms of Trauma.

At the core we may sum up trauma as an unexpected experience out of our control that exceeds our ability to cope. Each child is effected by ‘traumatic events’ differently, this can be due to differing levels of resilience and the extent of the traumatic incident such as frequency and invasiveness.

There are different types of trauma that may impact a child who has witnessed domestic abuse such as, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, complex trauma and Developmental Trauma.

A Child impacted by traumatic events may appear with: Intense and ongoing emotional upset, depressive symptoms or anxiety, behavioural changes, difficulties with self-regulation, problems relating to others or forming attachments, regression or loss of previously acquired skills, attention and academic low performance, nightmares, bed wetting and avoidance of trauma triggers.

Relationships and attachments

To form a healthy secure attachment a child needs to experience their parent as attentive and able to meet their emotional and physical needs. This can be impacted through the mother having to prioritise physical safety and managing the impacts on their wellbeing and mental health.

Van Ijzendoorn stated that “among biologically intact mother and infant dyads, the strongest predictor of secure or insecure infant attachment found thus far is the caregiver’s state of mind.” therefore when a caregiver is being subjected to domestic abuse it is likely to have an impact upon their attachment relationship with their child.

It is worth noting that studies have shown that women living with domestic abuse often work to compensate for this by providing especially attentive and consistent parenting. Children with an insecure or disorganised attachment style may appear: mistrusting of adults, crying that isn’t easily consoled, becoming very upset when a caregiver leaves, clinging to their attachment figures, exploring less than children of a similar age, appearing generally anxious, not interacting with strangers, having problems regulating and controlling negative emotions.

Loss and abandonment

Children impacted by domestic abuse are likely to experience, at times, parent alienation or abandonment due to separation, safeguarding and legal proceedings.

Children may often not be aware of the reasons behind changes in contact or living arrangements with their parents, which can increase feelings of loss and abandonment. Similarly, to how children form attachments their healthy human development requires knowing that physical and emotional needs are met.

During childhood, this reassurance comes from parents. Events can interrupt this assurance at any age. When this happens, abandonment fears may develop. Abandonment fears for children may look like, increased anxiety, separation anxiety, fear of death/loss, confusion or ambivalent feelings towards a caregiver.

Useful contacts

If you think a child is at risk of abuse, then please contact Nottinghamshire safeguarding hub on 0300 500 80 80 (if you are a member of the public) or 0300 500 80 90 (if you are a professional).

If you require an urgent response outside of working hours (8.30am to 5pm), contact the Emergency Duty Team (EDT) on 0300 456 4546. In an emergency call 999. To report a crime call 101.

Useful links