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Abuse – The impact on children


Children who are exposed to domestic abuse experience emotional, mental, and social damage that can affect their developmental growth. Some children may lose the ability to feel empathy for others. Others can feel socially isolated, unable to make friends easily due to social discomfort or confusion over what is acceptable.

Sadly on a daily basis we hear of violent acts or tragedies, involving the children within our communities and other parts of the U.K. Traffic accidents and natural disasters are unintentional and unpredictable whilst others are intentional and sometimes premeditated, such as fights, knife crime, muggings, shootings or murder. Many children and teenagers witness violence within their schools and neighbourhoods, and other children are exposed to violence within their homes.

When children are exposed to a traumatic event, including crimes or violence, their response may vary. Some children can become:

• Afraid

• Prefer to stay at home, rather than attend school

• Trouble sleeping or/and concentrating

• Appetites may change

• Feeling unwell e.g headaches/stomachaches

The smallest of changes to a child’s daily routine can cause distress and upset them terribly. Some children may become desensitised to violence or the distress of others. Some children who exposed to violence learn to resolve their own conflicts in a violent manner. Some children will  retreat into a shell, avoiding friends, family, people and the world around them.

Children with long-term exposure to domestic abuse are at an increased risk of:

•  Behavioural, psychological, and physical problems

•  Academic failure

•  Alcohol and substance use

•  Delinquent acts

•  Adult criminality

Some children may repeat the violence they have experienced, they perpetuate a cycle of violence that can continue throughout future generations.

Children who are exposed to violence on a regular basis often experience the same symptoms and lasting effects as children who are victims of violence themselves, including post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A child can feel emotional and physical aftershocks for months or even years. They can repeatedly relive events in their minds, and be unable to function or concentrate normally in their day-to-day lives. Some children can become aggressive, violent, or self-destructive.

It’s important to encourage children to discuss anything they wish to speak about whilst we listen, allowing them to express their emotions, including fear, anxiety, or anger. Children who have been exposed or witnessed violent occurrences will need a great deal of support and can often need counseling in order to help them handle their feelings.

The weeks and months after a violent or traumatic event, it’s important we do everything possible to make sure that children feel safe and secure to help a sense of normality return to their life, by being with them and ensuring they know you are there, will help them to feel protected throughout the day and night.

Encourage children to express their emotions and fears. Let them know what steps have been taken to ensure their protection and reassure them, they are safe.

If you need help with ways to encourage children to express their emotions and help them to feel safe, take a look at our resources for children and young adults Nested Together for further support.

The Details

Domestic abuse is any type of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between people who are, or who have been in a relationship, regardless of gender or sexuality. It can include physical, sexual, psychological, emotional or financial abuse.Each UK nation has its own definition of domestic abuse for professionals who are working to prevent domestic abuse and protect those who have experienced it (Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, 2016; Home Office, 2013; Police Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, 2019; Welsh Government, 2019).Domestic abuse can include:

  • sexual abuse and rape (including within a relationship)
  • punching, kicking, cutting, hitting with an object
  • withholding money or preventing someone from earning money
  • taking control over aspects of someone’s everyday life, which can include where they go and what they wear
  • not letting someone leave the house
  • reading emails, text messages or letters
  • threatening to kill or harm them, a partner, another family member or pet.
NSPCC Learning (protecting children from domestic abuse. Last updated: 27 August 2020)

Witnessing and experiencing domestic abuse

Children never just ‘witness’ domestic abuse; it always has an impact on them. Exposure to domestic abuse or violence in childhood is child abuse.Children may experience domestic abuse directly, but they can also experience it indirectly by:

  • hearing the abuse from another room
  • seeing a parent’s injuries or distress afterwards
  • finding disarray like broken furniture
  • being hurt from being nearby or trying to stop the abuse
  • experiencing a reduced quality in parenting as a result of the abuse (Royal College of General Practitioners and NSPCC, 2014; Holt, Buckley and Whelan, 2008).
NSPCC Learning (protecting children from domestic abuse. Last updated: 27 August 2020)

The effects of domestic violence on children play a tremendous role on the well-being and developmental growth of children witnessing the event. Children who witness domestic violence in the home often believe that they are to blame, live in a constant state of fear, and are 15 times more likely to be victims of child abuse.

Close observation during an interaction can alert providers to the need for further investigation and intervention, such as dysfunctions in the physical, behavioural, emotional, and social areas of life, and can aid in early intervention and assistance for child victims.

Physical symptoms

In general, children who witness domestic violence in the home can suffer an immense amount of physical symptoms along with their emotional and behavioral state of despair. These children may complain of general aches and pain, such as headaches and stomach aches. They may also have irritable and irregular bowel habits, cold sores, and problems with bed wetting. These complaints have been associated with depressive disorders in children, a common emotional effect of domestic violence. Along with these general complaints of not feeling well, children who witness domestic violence may also appear nervous, as previously mentioned, and have short attention spans. These children display some of the same symptoms as children who have been diagnosed with attention deficit Hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). On the reverse, these children may show symptoms of fatigue and constant tiredness. They may fall asleep in school due to the lack of sleep at home. Much of their night may be spent listening to or witnessing violence within the home. Children who are victims of domestic violence are often frequently ill, and may suffer from poor personal hygiene. Children who witness domestic violence also have a tendency to partake in high risk play activities, self-abuse, and suicide.


The physical effects of domestic violence on children, different than the effects of direct abuse, can start when they are a fetas in their mother’s womb, which can result in low infant birth weights, premature birth, excessive bleeding and fetal death due to the mother’s physical trauma and emotional stress. Increased maternal stress during the times of abuse, especially when combined with smoking and drug abuse, can also lead to premature deliveries and low weight babies. When a woman is stressed while pregnant, the baby can be born with stress and anxiety and can sometimes have problems with growth.


Infant children who are present in the home where domestic violence occurs often fall victim to being “caught in the crossfire.” They may suffer physical injuries from unintentional trauma as their parent is suffering from abuse. Infants may be inconsolable and irritable, have a lack of responsiveness secondary to lacking the emotional and physical attachment to their mother, suffer from development delays and have excessive diarrhoea from both trauma and stress. Infants are most affected by the environment of abuse because their brain hasn’t fully developed.

Older children

Physical effects of witnessing domestic violence in older children are less evident than behavioral and emotional effects. The trauma that children experience when they witness domestic violence in the home, plays a major role in their development and physical well-being. Older children can sometimes turn the stress towards behavioral problems. Sometimes children who witness the abuse turn to drugs, hoping to take the pain away. The children, however, will exhibit physical symptoms associated with their behavioral or emotional problems, such as being withdrawn from those around them, becoming non-verbal, and exhibiting regressed behaviors such as being clingy and whiney. Anxiety often accompanies a physical symptom in children who witness domestic violence in the home. If their anxiety progresses to more physical symptoms, they may show signs of tiredness from lack of sleep and weight and nutritional changes from poor eating habits.


Children who witness domestic violence in the home should be assessed for the physical effects and physical injuries. However, it is important to note that physical changes in eating habits, sleeping patterns, or bowel patterns may be difficult to evaluate by a professional.

Behavioral symptoms

Children exposed to domestic violence are likely to develop behavioural problems, such as regressing, exhibiting out of control behaviour, and imitating behaviors. Children may think that violence is an acceptable behavior of intimate relationships and become either the victim or the abuser. Some warning signs are bed-wetting, nightmares, distrust of adults, acting tough, having problems becoming attached to other people, and isolating themselves from their close friends and family. Another behavioral response to domestic violence may be that the child may lie in order to avoid confrontation and excessive attention-getting.In addition, to the behavioral symptoms of children, a source that supports this article is a study that has been done by Albert Bandura (1977). The study that was presented was about introducing children to a role model that is aggressive, non-aggressive, and a control group that showed no role model. This study is called, “The Bobo Doll Experiment”, the experiment influenced the children to act similar to their role model towards the doll itself. The children who were exposed to violence acted with aggression, the children who were exposed to a non-aggressive environment were quite friendly. As a result, children can be highly influenced by what is going on in their environment.Adolescents are in jeopardy of academic failure, school drop-out, and substance abuse.Their behaviour is often guarded and secretive about their family members and they may become embarrassed about their home situation. Adolescents generally don’t like to invite friends over and they spend their free time away from home. Denial and aggression are their major forms of problem-solving. Teens cope with domestic violence by blaming others, encountering violence in a relationship or by running away from home.

Teen dating violence

An estimated 1/5 to 1/3 of teenagers subject to viewing domestic violent situations experience teen dating violence, regularly abusing or being abused by their partners verbally, mentally, emotionally, sexually or physically. 30% to 50% of dating relationships can exhibit the same cycle of escalating violence in their marital relationships.

Physical symptoms

Physical symptoms are a major effect on children due to parental domestic violence. In a study, 52% of 59 children yelled from another room, 53% of 60 children yelled from the same room, a handful actually called someone for help, and some just became significantly involved themselves during the abusive occurrence. When the violent situation is at its peak and a child tries to intervene, logically a person would have thought that in order to save their child from harm, parents would control themselves, however, statistics show otherwise. It is said that about 50% of the abusers also end up abusing their children. Another alarming statistic is that 25% of the victims of the abusive relationship also tend to get violent with their children. The violence imposed on these children can in some cases be life-threatening. If a mother is pregnant during the abuse, the unborn child is at risk of lifelong impairments or at risk of life itself. Researchers have studied, amongst perinatal and neonatal statistics, mothers who experience domestic violence had more than double the risk of child mortality.

Emotional symptoms

Children exposed to violence in their home often have conflicting feelings towards their parents. For instance, distrust and affection often coexist for the abuser. The child becomes overprotective of the victim and feels sorry for them.They often develop anxiety, fearing that they may be injured or abandoned, that the child’s parent being abused will be injured, or that they are to blame for the violence that is occurring in their homes. Grief, shame and low self-esteem are common emotions that children exposed to domestic violence experience.


Depression is a common problem for children who experience domestic violence. The child often feels helpless and powerless. More girls internalise their emotions and show signs of depression than boys. Boys are more apt to act out with aggression and hostility.Witnessing violence in the home can give the child the idea that nothing is safe in the world and that they are not worth being kept safe which contributes to their feelings of low self-worth and depression.


Some children act out through anger and are more aggressive than other children. Even in situations that do not call for it, children will respond with anger. Children and young people particularly highlighted angry feelings as a consequence of experiencing domestic violence.Physical aggression can also manifest towards the victim from the children as the victim does not have the ability to develop authority and control over them.

Post traumatic stress disorder

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can result in children from exposure to domestic violence. Symptoms of this are nightmares, insomnia, anxiety, increased alertness to the environment, having problems concentrating, and can lead to physical symptoms.If the child experiences chronic early maltreatment within the caregiving relationship, then complex post-traumatic stress disorder can result.

Role reversal

There is sometimes role reversal between the child and the parent and the responsibilities of the victim who is emotionally and psychologically dysfunctional are transferred to the child.In this situation, the parents treat their child as a therapist or confidant, and not as their child. They are forced to mature faster than the average child. They take on household responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning, and caring for younger siblings.The responsibilities that they take on are beyond normally assigned chores and are not age appropriate. The child becomes socially isolated and is not able to participate in activities that are normal for a child their age. The parentified child is at risk for becoming involved in rocky relationships because they have been isolated and are not experienced at forming successful relationships. Also, they tend to become perfectionists because they are forced to live up to such high expectations for their parents.

Social symptoms

Children exposed to domestic violence frequently do not have the foundation of safety and security that is normally provided by the family. The children experience a desensitisation to aggressive behavior, poor anger management, poor problem solving skills, and learn to engage in exploitative relationships.

  • Symptoms include isolation from friends and relatives in an effort to stay close to siblings and victimised parent.
  • The adolescent may display these symptoms by joining a gang or becoming involved in dating relationships that mimic the learned behaviour.

Children exposed to domestic violence require a safe nurturing environment and the space and respect to progress at their own pace. The caretaker should provide reassurance and an increased sense of security by providing explanations and comfort for the things that worry the children, like loud noises. Children should develop and maintain positive contact with significant others such as distant family members. All family members are encouraged to become involved in community organisations designed to assist families in domestic violence situations.

Please Do Not Ignore it. Please Report Domestic Abuse.Domestic abuse or violence is a crime and should be reported to the police – there are also other organisations who can offer you help and support.Call 999 if it’s an emergency or you’re in immediate danger.If you’re worried that a child or young person is at risk or is being abused contact the children’s social care team at their local council.You’ll be asked for your details, but you can choose not to share them.Call 999 if the child is at immediate risk.If it’s not an emergency, you can report the crime online or by calling 101.Calls to 999 or 101 are free.

Helplines and further support for Domestic Abuse and the Impact on Children

The NSPCC Helpline is for anyone who has concerns about the welfare of a child. The helpline service provides support for adults who are worried about a child, advice for parents and carers, consultations with professionals who come into contact with abused children or children at risk of abuse, information about child protection and the NSPCC. If a translator is required this can be arranged. Support for hard of hearing clients can be found at www.sv2.me.
Phone: 0808 800 5000
Text: 88858

NSPCC – ChildLine
ChildLine is a service for children and young people up the age of 18. The helpline team provide support, counselling and advice and refer children in danger to appropriate sources of help. Young people can contact ChildLine about any problem, including family relationship issues, bullying, school and college, physical abuse, sexual abuse, anxiety, self harm, mental health, sexual identity, sex and relationships, life issues, autism, online and mobile safety, addictions, friends, eating problems, crime and the law, racism, support after ChildLine. Calls are confidential and will not appear on the phone bill, including mobiles. Further support includes online chat and ‘Ask Sam’ problem page
Phone: 0800 1111

NSPCC female genital mutilation (FGM) helpline – if you are worried about a child at risk or someone who has already undergone FGM
Phone: 0800 028 3550

Provides support and expert advice to the single parent with the main care of the child. Support includes anything from dealing with a break-up to going back to work or sorting out maintenance, welfare benefits or tax credit issues, contact, employment, education, housing and debt. Advisers will talk through options with callers and send useful information. Free membership scheme for single parents, as well as peer support groups in England and Wales. Run employability programmes to help single parents move back towards work.
Single Parent Helpline: 0808 802 0925

The Mix
Whether you’re 13, 25, or any age in between, ‘The mix will take of those embarrassing problems, weird questions, and those please-don’t-make-me-say-it-out-loud thoughts we all have. The Mix give you the information and support you need to deal with it all. Because you can. Because you’re awesome. The mix will connect you to experts and your peers who’ll give you the support and tools you need to take on any challenge you’re facing which can be everything from homelessness to finding a job, from money to mental health, from break-ups to drugs. The Mix are a free and confidential multi-channel service. That means that you choose how you access their support, without the worry of anyone else finding out. Whether it be through articles and video content online or phone, email, peer to peer and counselling services – The Mix put the control in your hands. You can even volunteer with them too.
Helpline: 0808 808 4994

Confidential online and telephone support, including information and advice, to any adult worried about the emotional problems, behaviour or mental health of a child/ young person up to the age of 25.
Phone Parents Helpline: 0808 802 5544

Say Something Helpline
The Say Something Team provide listening support to young people enabling young people to discuss worries and feelings, obtain advice and pass on concerns around child sexual exploitation anonymously. This service is free, 24 hour and confidential. There is no requirement to provide the Team with your name.
Call or text 116 000 or email 116000@missingpeople.org.uk. It is still possible to text with no credit on your mobile phone. The  number will not show up on your bill.
Call or Text 116 000

HOPELINEUK is a specialist telephone service staffed by trained professionals who give non-judgemental support, practical advice and information to children, teenagers and young people up to the age of 35 who are worried about how they’re feeling or anyone who is concerned about a young person. HOPELINEUK is free to call and free to text.
Phone: 0800 068 41 41
Text: 07786 209697

Childrens Deaf Helpline
NDCS (National Deaf Children’s Society) UK
Phone: 0808 800 8880

Terrence Higgins Trust – Talksafe2
Provides free face to face, telephone and online counselling by text or email to young people in London with the aim of improving emotional wellbeing. Helping with issues such as bullying, discrimination, family relationships, exam pressures, sexual health, sex, sexuality, depression, divorce, drink and drugs, gangs, puberty, pregnancy and more. Counsellors can provide short term therapy (12 sessions). Interactive website where a young person can also access information. Talksafe also supports young people to become involved with the project as peer mentors. Talksafe also offers schools the opportunity of working with a placement counsellor and can provide services to students on the school site.
Phone: 0207 812 1874

Kooth.com is an online counselling service that provides vulnerable young people, between the ages of 11 and 25, with advice and support for emotional or mental health problems. Kooth.com offers users a free, confidential, safe and anonymous way to access help.

Free and confidential helpline providing homelessness advice and support to anyone in England aged 16-25. The Team can also offer advice to people worried about a young person they know. The Centrepoint Helpline can help with issues including sofa surfing, options for when the Council cannot provide support, pregnant women and those with children, non-UK citizens and fleeing violence. The team connects callers to the right services as quickly as possible and can help young people put a plan into action. Calls to 0808 80 numbers are free from landlines and mobiles in the UK.
Phone: 0808 800 0661

Confidential advocacy and advice helpline for children and young people in Wales. Open 24hrs a day, 7 days a week. Contact can be made by phone, email, SMS text and instant messaging. Online chat also available. Can help with issues including family, relationships, bullying, online safety, local services, education, rights, wellbeing and more. Calls to 0808 80 numbers are free to call from landlines and mobile phones within the UK and do not appear on itemised bills.
Phone MEIC Helpline: 0808 802 3456/ Text 84001

National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC)
National Association for people abused in childhood. Provide support and information for people abused in childhood and runs a national freephone support line for adults, both male and female, who have suffered any type of abuse in childhood. This could be physical, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect. London based ongoing support group (face to face). Can also direct callers to local area support.
Phone: 0808 801 0331

Reunite International Child Abduction Center UK
Phone: (0) 1162 556 234 (Advice Line)

The Helpline provides a free single point of access to all NYAS services. Some mobile networks may charge the same as a landline charge to connect to 0808 numbers. Callback available. Team of advisers supporting children, young people, and vulnerable adults to ensure their rights are up held. Welcome enquiries from representatives of children, young people, and vulnerable adult such as professionals, practitioners, family or friends too. Online one-to-one chat facility.
Phone: 0808 808 1001
Runaway Helpline
If you are feeling like running away or you are away from home, Runaway Helpline are here to listen.
Call or Text 116 000 or email 116000@www.runawayhelpline.org.uk. Free, confidential, 24/7.
For info about 1-2-1 chat times or to chat live, click the pink chat button.

The Cece Yara Foundation
Confidential and anonymous helpline service providing advice and information to prevent child sexual abuse. The helplines are managed by trained staff who all have experience of listening and talking to children and young people. The Team can help with issues including types of abuse, reporting process after reporting child sexual abuse, immediate and further actions the caller can take such as calling law enforcement, reporting incidents in your locality, options available including referral to follow up services and/or other agencies. Further help includes emotional support as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse with access to appropriate counselling and support.
Phone: 0800 800 8001 (toll free) 0700 700 7001

Young Scot
Young Scot is the national youth information and citizenship charity. Provide young people with a mixture of information, ideas and incentives. This is done in a variety of formats including online, social, apps, magazines, and phone. Provide information on a range of issues including health, money, sport, leisure, travel, relationships, education and training, jobs and careers. Contact point for the National Entitlement Card.
Phone: 0808 801 0338

Mermaids UK
Mermaids supports children and young people up to 19 years old suffering from gender identity issues, their families and supporting professionals. Support includes a helpline, email service, direct support, online forums for parents and teens, plus local and national meetings. These services provide a vital lifeline for young people and families searching for support and information. Calls to 0808 80 numbers are free from all landlines and mobiles in the UK and do not appear on itemised bills.
Phone: 0808 801 0400

Muslim Youth Helpline
National helpline providing culturally sensitive support to Muslim youth. Free, non-judgmental emotional support and advocacy. Helpline volunteers respond to telephone calls from vulnerable and distressed young Muslims. The Team offer support and a listening ear and, where necessary, make referrals to specialist agencies and other special support service. Helpline staff can help with issues including relationships, abuse (sexual, physical, emotional), mental health problems, education and employment, social life and identity.
Phone: 0808 808 2008 + live chat

The National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACOA)
Free and confidential helpline providing information, advice and support for everyone affected by a parent’s drinking. The helpline is available for children, adults, concerned others and professionals alike and is a safe place to talk. There is no need to provide your name or tell anyone else you are talking to NACOA. You can also talk to the helpline as often as you want. Sometimes writing can help. Email helpline@nacoa.org.uk or write to Nacoa, PO Box 64, Bristol, BS16 2UH. Children will try to hide family problems from the outside world. Problems include witnessing domestic violence, eating disorders, difficulties at school, developing alcoholism or addiction, trouble with the police. Calls to the helpline are free and will not show up on landline phone bills. Calls from many mobile providers are also free but if your provider charges and you have inclusive minutes you can dial 0117 924 3675 but please be aware this may show up on your bill. Answerphone available when lines are busy.
Phone: 0800 358 3456

Coram Voice
Coram Voice provides Always Heard, the national advocacy safety net and advice service for children and young people who are in need, in care, or leaving the care of Children’s Services. Always Heard offers a single free point of contact for all children and young people in England. Offer independent and expert advice to young people about their rights and assist them to access their local advocacy service. Accept referrals direct from young people, as well as from carers and professionals. Access to LanguageLine with interpreted calls in over 200 languages.
Phone: 0808 800 5792
WhatsApp/SMS: 07758 670369

Committed to keeping children safe from bullying and child abuse, the helpline offers advice to parents on any concerns about school bullying. The website includes a forum for children to talk about their experiences of bullying, details of courses to help children to cope with bullying and you can order free booklets and leaflets on child safety and the prevention of bullying and abuse.
Phone: 020 7823 5430  Mon-Tue 10am-5pm

The Hideout
The Hideout is a dedicated website for young people up to the age of 21 where they can find information about relationship abuse and where to get help.
Phone: 0117 317 8750

Stop it Now!
UK & Ireland
Abuse thrives in an atmosphere of secrecy and taboo. The Stop it Now! UK & Ireland campaign aims to stop child sexual abuse by encouraging abusers and potential abusers to seek help and by giving adults the information they need to protect children effectively.
Phone: 0808 1000 900
All calls are confidential

A national second tier organisation providing training and consultancy on teenage relationship abuse as well as all other forms of violence against women and girls.

Barnardo’s is the largest provider of child sexual exploitation support services in the UK. Staffed by qualified professionals, these services provide a safe and confidential environment where young people can go for help, advice and support. Specialist training is also provided to professionals so they know what signs to look out for.
Phone: 0208 550 8822

Nip in the Bud
Nip in the Bud® was set up to encourage awareness about mental health disorders in young children. If left untreated, they could also develop into serious mental and physical health problems. Nip it in the bud have films to illustrate the behaviours common in different conditions in children, along with explanations and information on how to follow up and get help.  The films are accompanied by downloadable fact sheets explaining the symptoms to look out for, to spot early signs of distress which may require further monitoring.

Useful websites for Children and younger people

Support and information for anyone affected by eating disorders.
Helpline: 0345 634 7650
Youthline: 0345 634 7650