Children and Domestic Violence

Children and domestic violence

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Children who live in households where there is domestic violence can experience physical, psychological and emotional harm through directly or indirectly witnessing and experiencing domestic violence. The definition of significant harm in the Children’s Act 1989 was extended in 2002 to acknowledge the adverse effects of children’s exposure to domestic violence. It now states that significant harm includes: “the impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another”.  At least 750,000 children a year witness domestic violence. Nearly three quarters of children on the ‘at risk’ register live in households where domestic violence occurs“. Around one in twenty children is witness to frequent physical violence between parents [1]. 

Domestic violence is defined by the UK Government as

‘Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality.

This can encompass, but is not limited to, the following types of abuse:

  • psychological
  • physical
  • sexual
  • financial
  • emotional

Controlling behaviour is: a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.

Coercive behaviour is: an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.”

*This definition includes so called ‘honour’ based violence, female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced marriage, and is clear that victims are not confined to one gender or ethnic group.

How are younger children exposed to domestic violence?

  • seeing a mother assaulted or demeaned
  • hearing loud conflict and violence
  • seeing the aftermath (e.g., injuries), feeling the tension
  • learning about what happened to their mother
  • being used by an abusive parent as part of the abuse
  • being denied what is owed them for child support

Ways a child can experience domestic violence

  • Witnessing violence
  • Isolation/secrecy
  • Threats
  • Blame (self or from others)
  • Deprivation / ‘neglect’
  • Direct involvement
  • Injuries
  • Trying to protect siblings or non-abusive parent

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Children are covered by child protection legislation where professionals have a duty to promote and safeguard the welfare of the child.

Under Section 11 of the Children Act 2004, individuals, government bodies and agencies must “make arrangements for ensuring that their functions are discharged having regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children”.  Any health, social and education professionals who suspect that a child is suffering significant harm or may be at risk of suffering significant harm as a result of Violence Against Women and Girls should make a referral to Children’s Services.

Research into the needs of children affected by domestic violence found that their two primary needs are to be safe and to have someone to talk to. [2]

Warning signs

Ages 1-6

Ages 6-11

Ages 12-18

Bedwetting Bedwetting Withdrawal & isolation
Excessive crying Night terrors/Nightmares Headaches/Stomach Pain
Immobility Sleep problems Depression & sadness
Excessive clinging Irrational fears Suicidal ideation
Thumb sucking Irritability Aggressiveness
Enuresis/Encopresis (bed/clothes soiling)   Excessive clinging Increased sleep
Fear of being left alone Disobedience Night terrors
Asking to be dressed or fed Injury to the body School problems
Fretful sleep pattern Refusal to go to school Loss of childhood
Irritability Visual or hearing problems “Perfect child” or “caretaker”
Confusion Withdrawal of interest Anger at abused parent
Speech problems Loss of ability to concentrate Identification with the aggressor
Frequent illness Frequent illness Fear of bringing friends home
Physical neglect (diaper rash, sores) Eating disorders Drug/Alcohol abuse
Reluctance to be touched Nervous disorder (stuttering, tics, etc) Sexual acting out
Aggressiveness, biting, hitting, difficulty in sharing Sophisticated knowledge of sex
Excessive fantasy in play Protective of mother
Rescue fantasies Self-harming
Inappropriate care-taking behaviours

Many of these warning signs could be indicative of a number of issues but abuse should be considered as a likely cause. Any suicidal ideation should be dealt with immediately.


  1. Cawson, P., Wattam, C., Brooker, S. and Kelly, G. (2000) Child Maltreatment in the United Kingdom: A study of the prevalence of abuse and neglect. NSPCC
  2. Mullender, A., Hague, G., Imam, U., Kelly, L., Malos, E. and Regan, L. (2002) Children’s perspectives on domestic violence