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Suffer the children

Children never just ‘witness’ domestic abuse. It always hurts them, even when they themselves are not the direct object of abuse. Living in an abusive situation can seriously affect a young person’s physical and mental wellbeing and cause grave emotional and psychological problems that last well into adulthood. Entire lives can be ruined.

According to the NSPCC, it can be difficult to be sure that domestic abuse is happening. Abusers may act very differently when others are around. Children may feel frightened and confused, unable to talk to others, internalising their distress or blaming themselves.

Even when children leave the abused home for a place of safety, they can face many more challenges through being forced to move away from family and friends, with school and other activities disrupted. The family may have to cope with temporary accommodation before a new permanent home is found and face serious financial worries.

1 in 5 children in Scotland will experience domestic abuse before they reach the age of 18 in their families or in their own intimate relationships.

Some of the ways in which children experience domestic abuse:

  • Being injured pre-birth or as a baby when abuser attacks mother
  • Being abused directly (usually by the same abuser)
  • Injury/threats if child tries to intervene to protect the abused parent
  • Living in fear, in a situation of perpetual conflict, always trying to hide
  • Having to leave the home to seek help
  • Restricted access to food/health care/clothes if abuser controls money and movements
  • Erratic school attendance (if mother can’t take child, if child stays at home to try to look after parent, etc.)
  • Unable or unwilling to bring friends home
  • Developing a distorted perspective on relationships, rights and responsibilities
  • Being forced to take part in abuse of mother (including sexual)

Signs that children may have witnessed domestic abuse:

  • Attention seeking
  • Anger, aggression, tantrums, bullying
  • Anti-social behaviour, like vandalism
  • Anxiety, withdrawal, depression, suicidal thoughts
  • Feelings of low self-esteem, insecurity, isolation, guilt
  • Bed-wetting, nightmares, flashbacks or insomnia
  • Constant or frequent sickness, like colds, tummy ache, headaches and mouth ulcers
  • Self-harm, or running away to escape the abuse
  • Problems in school, trouble learning
  • Eating disorders
  • Drug or alcohol abuse

(Based on the Royal College of Psychiatrists Briefing, 2004)

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