Published on December 17, 2022

We will never really know how many children and families experience Domestic Violence (DV) as so many of these incidents go unreported. But what we do know for certain is that witnessing DV has an adverse effect on children. What are the effects on children who witness domestic violence?

Witnessing Domestic Violence

Over half of known DV incidents happen when a child is present, and half of these happen when a child is under the age of 6. Most of the time, children are not directly physically hurt during these incidents, but the lasting impact on their development is significant. For example, children who have witnessed DV are more likely to have difficulties in their friendships, find it harder to concentrate at school, do fewer activities outside school, act in an aggressive way and will have symptoms of trauma such as nightmares and flashbacks.

This all makes sense when you think of how children learn. Children, especially younger ones, learn predominantly by observing and imitating. As any parent will tell you, you could tell your child to do something a hundred times and they won’t. Show them how to do it and they are far more likely to copy you. Watching your parents physically hurt each other is a terrifying experience for children. The two people you love the most and who guide you through life are doing the very things you know are wrong. These children go back into school the next day and will act out what they’ve seen. They get into trouble for it, and yet their parents don’t. They get into trouble at school and they go home to a house that scares them. There is little wonder they don’t blossom.

What Does Research Tell Us?

But, research is helping us to understand how we can best support children who have witnessed DV. There are a few clues coming out of studies, with the most significant one being that the child needs a mother with ‘good enough’ parenting skills and a mother who is functioning as well as she can despite the DV. That is, having a pillar of strength, hope and comfort in the form of a responsive mother can build up the child’s resilience to help them get through this period of time (NB: The research has focused mainly on male to female DV as that is still the most common form. It will be interesting to see what is found when researchers begin to study female to male DV). Being a family who is active, sociable and organised is also a protective factor. As you would expect, being exposed to DV for a shorter period of time, and it being the first time it’s occurred, will also mean that you are better able to cope with it.

Intervention And Support

Given that a child can be buffered from the effects of DV by the continuing care of a ‘solid’ parent, it follows that any effective intervention should involve the parent as well as the child. Studies have looked at the impact of teaching children social skills as well as coping skills. The main difference in how children did was still determined by how their parent was functioning. So again, the message is clear that the more the parent is coping and functioning the more the child will be able to keep going.

Parents need to get all the support they can so that they can in turn be that pillar of strength Acknowledging and admitting to the DV is the first step. Accessing support and networks is the second. These are difficult to do as DV seeps into the very core of a person’s belief in themselves and the future. But, knowing that how you as a parent copes is the biggest determiner of how your child copes may give you the drive you need to change things.

Dr Angharad Rudkin has written widely on this subject and some of her books are to be found in our specialist shop. We have a lot more information on mental health on this hub. Follow this link to read more.

Dr Angharad Rudkin is a contributor to ‘Separating With Children 101’, 3rd edition, (Bath Publishing, 2023).

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The Impact On Children

It is so easy to be told that you need to put your children first when we are separating, but what does it actually mean? When your life is turmoil and emotions are running high this can feel daunting when there are so many things to think about. If you have a child with someone, then regardless of whatever you think of them or whatever they might have done, they will still have an important role to play in the life of your child. Exceptions to this are rare. Possessive language that excludes or minimises the role of the other parent can negatively impact the relationship between that parent and the child and can increase conflict and make it more difficult to co-parent. We know that conflict and/or parental absence in particular has a negative impact on children.

Parents need to create the right conditions for children to thrive.

For children, whilst separation will bring inevitable feelings of loss and change, they can still thrive if their parents work in partnership to create the right conditions. We know that children are more likely to adapt with fewer problems, and less emotional distress, when parents are able to part with compassion and continue to work together in partnership even when they are not together. On this hub you will find lots of article and tips on how to minimise the impact on children. For example; how do you set up two homes? How do you co-parent well? What does it mean to put your children first? How do you tell your child you are separating? What do I tell the school? What about holidays? And much more...

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