In the last year alone, an estimated 2 million people aged 16-59 experienced domestic abuse.
Government figures suggest that 250,000 children are living with domestic violence in the home. Currently they are not seen as victims under the law.
So, what are the effects on children of seeing a parent being abused?
For the first two years of my life, my mother was in an abusive relationship with my father. Now, you may think that I wouldn’t remember anything from this time period, and you would be right. At this moment in time, I have no recollection of anything that happened in that time period other than the things that my mother has told me since and even then, they are not my own memories. Thankfully, I can’t call upon a memory of my own witnessing the abuse. But one memory that I have very clear in my head is telling my Year 1 teacher (so I was 5 or 6) that I saw my ‘daddy hit mummy’. I had not seen my father since my second birthday, so, what had made me go and tell my teacher four years later? To this day, I have no idea what drove me to act that day. Why then? Why speak to my teacher of all possible people? Due to my age at the time, these are still unanswered questions. But it inspired me to understand more about what children and young people actually experience when they’re in an abusive household.
According to a briefing by the Royal College of Psychiatrists (2004), children are individuals and thus behave and react differently to witnessing domestic abuse. Some effects include but are not limited to:
- Anxiety and Depression
- Difficulty Sleeping
- Nightmares or Flashbacks
- Easily Startled
- Tummy Aches
- Wetting the Bed
- Tantrums and Problems at School
- Behaving Younger than they are
- Becoming Aggressive
- Withdrawing from Others
- Lowered Sense of Self Worth
- Older Children may Truant, Use Drugs and/or Alcohol, Self-Harm, or even develop an Eating Disorder.
These are side effects which practitioners working with children and young people will understand; and a large part of a social workers job in this situation is being able to facilitate change for children who are experiencing some or all of these effects. Nevertheless, it is still relatively unknown or researched as to how witnessing violence in the home affects children in the long term. Unless a practitioner is dealing with a particular service user for many years, it can be unclear about how domestic abuse shapes the individual later in life. They may rely on support from different social workers, and use various services; giving a disjointed feel to their journey.
Thankfully, we’re starting to see more studies about how stress and trauma in general can affect children’s brain development. The notion that very young children are less likely to be affected by witnessing domestic abuse is proving to be wrong. The evidence is coming to light that there are still effects which alter their development and provide them with challenges as they grow and mature. One-year olds are more disturbed by adults arguing when they have witnessed violence. Under three year-olds are at an increased risk for psychological problems, and children that are exposed to high levels of domestic violence are on average 8 points lower in I.Q. than other children at age 5. I believe this isn’t enough though: we need to know more.
I may not have my own memories of the abuse my mother experienced. I can’t point to an instance and say “this happened”. But I know that being in this environment, even at such a young age, shaped me as an individual. And I am just one of millions of people in the UK who are in similar situations. It’s incredibly important for us to research more into the consequences felt later in life by young children who witness violence; as only then can we understand what support is needed. While it’s essential we help vulnerable children in the immediate moments during and after instances of domestic abuse, we can’t forget that children grow. The effects on children when they become young people and adults needs to be more widely taught so that as a society we can develop a more consistent long-term approach to supporting vulnerable children.
Contributed by Becca Dawrant, One Stop Social Team.
If you’re working with children who are in an environment of domestic abuse, there are several resources on our website which can support your practice.