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Children Witnessing Domestic Abuse


Child abuse is the most appalling crime committed against one of the most vulnerable groups within our society.

Children can experience abuse in different forms and many settings, including at home, in school, online or in their neighbourhoods.

Child abuse can include, but it not limited to bullying, neglect, emotional abuse, physical abuse, grooming, child sexual exploitation, child trafficking, female genital mutilation, sexual abuse and domestic abuse.

If your child is witnessing abuse in home, the suffering that you’re experiencing is more than likely made much worse, because of the worry and concern you have for your child.

Children who live in abusive homes are affected by what they see and hear and they all respond very differently. Some children may withdraw, or they might act out. Many children pretend it’s no big deal, or they may quickly show signs of trauma, such as anxiety, sleep disruption or difficulties in school.

Children can experience a range of emotions when living in abusive households including fear, anger, isolation and guilt. Some children may even feel conflicted about loving their abusive parent. These are very natural and normal feelings and it’s important their feelings are validated.

It’s normal for people who have been in abusive or violent relationships to not want to talk about the abuse to their children and it may seem like a safer option to pretend that the abuse isn’t or didn’t happen. Parents often assume their children don’t know about the abuse or they hope they’ll just forget about it.

Denying or ignoring abuse can actually create more confusion and greater fear for a child.

It’s important to talk to your children about what’s going on whenever possible.

Let your Children know they matter and that their feelings count by asking them how they’re feeling and important we listen to them.

Allow children to share whatever types of feelings they have towards an abusive parent.

Let them know that the abuse is not their fault. Tell them you believe them and if they ever want to share something with you, they know that they can.

Children need reassurance so It’s important to tell them that you love them and you will always keep them safe.

Let them know that violence is never ok.

Acknowledge that it might be hard or scary for them and it’s ok to feel angry, sad, scared or any other feelings they have.

Accept that they may not be ready, willing or able to talk about what they’ve experienced straight away.

Help them learn healthy ways of dealing with anger, fear and other emotions.

Help them get involved in things that boost their self esteem and make them feel good about themselves.

Always speak in a way that is non threatening and non violent when children are present.

Arrange and encourage children to visit child counselling sessions where professionals are dedicated in supporting children with many healthy therapy options available.

Maintain as much structure and stick to a scheduled routine which helps children create a sense of safety, such as regular meals and homework times.

All children and young people have a fundamental right to feel safe, be protected from harm and their protection and safety is the responsibility of all of us.

Domestic abuse can have a serious and detrimental impact on a child’s behaviour, development, educational potential, mental health and overall wellbeing.

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.

All children who are witnessing domestic abuse are experiencing emotional abuse.

Abuse and violence can interfere with children’s lives and happiness.

At Nested we meet so many amazing children who are so happy and exited on the day they move into their new homes. Children look forward to starting new school, making new friends and for some children a new home means they are finally able to have fun and invite friends over to their house, which is something many children have been unable to do in their last home. Some children explain when they lived in their abusive homes they never wanted to leave their house because they was too afraid of what could happen to a parent if they leave and they wanted to stay at home to be able to protect their parent.

If you are experiencing domestic abuse remember:

A child’s safety and your safety are the priority.

Seek help for yourself and children if you are experiencing domestic abuse and report violent incidents to the police.

It’s important that you understand and believe, your not and you are never to blame for someone else’s abuse. Talk to someone you trust, a family member, friend, or your GP and tell them what your experiencing and how it’s making you feel.

Contact the NSPCC for help and support.

Help your children and allow them to talk whenever they need to. You and your children are also welcomed to talk to a professional at Nested.

The Details

Domestic violence (DV) takes many forms, including chronic arguing and yelling, controlling behaviors, intimidation, threats of suicide or murder, threats involving weapons, and serious injuries. There is always, however, a destructive undercurrent of power and control, with offenders commonly and compulsively grasping for in a surrogate the control that is lacking within themselves. Any pattern of behaviors in intimate relationships marked by coercive control can be a signal or foreshadowing of abuses.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported that in homes where violence between partners occurs, there is a 45% to 60% chance of co-occurring child abuse, a rate 15 times higher than the average. Even when they are not physically attacked, children witness 68% to 80% of domestic assaults. These numbers are a sobering reminder of the toll a violent environment takes on kids.

The circumstances of DV leave caregivers—emotionally and otherwise—unavailable and unresponsive, and activate in kids a primal fearand a host of other raw, complex, and unresolved emotions. The pioneering psychiatrist and researcher Daniel Siegel (2004) instructed, “The mind develops as the brain responds to ongoing experience… The pattern of firing of neurons is what gives rise to attention, emotion, and memory.” And what fires together—in a combination of violent exposures and the child’s underlying neurobiological experience—wires together.

The psychological aftermath of exposure to DV can include fear of harm or abandonment, excessive worry or sadness, guilt, inability to experience empathy or guilt, habitual lying, low frustration tolerance, emotional distancing, poor judgment, shame, and fear about the future.

The attention given, emotions felt, and memories imprinted onto a child’s brain in moments of stressbecome inextricably linked together and forever taint—or else filter—feelings, beliefs, and choices in relationships and so many other facets of life. These children are not merely innocent bystanders. They are victims.

Although they may be unintended victims, living within a climate of chronic emotional volatility and near acute incidents of aggression has a way of searing a neurophysiological muddle—painful and isolating emotions existing alongside ongoing and frequently unmet needs for affection and attachment.

Parents who are themselves batterers are more irritable, less involved in child rearing, more likely to use severe and erratic physical punishment, and less able to distinguish their children’s needs from their own. Both parents, regardless of culpability, risk poor emotional attunement with their children and, consequently, a decreased capacity to recognize stress and danger—protective factors which might increase a child’s resiliency.

Compared with other kids, those who have witnessed DV experience far greater incidence of insomniabed wetting, verbal, motor, and cognitive issues, learning difficulties, self-harm, aggressive and antisocial behaviors, depression and anxiety, as well as, most troubling, adult domestic violence, with boys often becoming offenders, victims, or both, and girls more likely to become victims (Brown and Bzostek, 2003).

A growing body of literature has revealed that children who have been exposed to DV are more likely than their peers to experience a wide range of difficulties, from anger and oppositional behavior, to fear, low self-worth and withdrawal, to poor sibling, peer, and social relationships. Studies have found evidence of much higher rates of pro-violence attitudes, rigid stereotypical genderbeliefs involving male privilege, animal abuse, bullying, assault, property destruction, and substance abuse.

A study by Kilpatrick, Litt, and Williams (1997) concluded that witnessing DV is an experience in and of itself sufficiently intense to precipitate posttraumatic stress in children. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has classified exposure to DV as one of several adverse childhood experiences contributing to poor quality of life, premature death, and risk factors for many of the most common causes of death in the United States.

In addition to the exposure itself, other factors influence impact, including the nature of the violence, age of the child, elapsed time since exposure, the child’s gender, and presence of physical or sexual abuse.

Children who witness fewer incidents of violence and experience positive interactions between caregivers may be, for instance, less detrimentally impacted than those exposed to frequent and extreme aggression. Younger children exhibit more concerning levels of psychological distress than older, more developmentally mature children. Children are highly anxious and fearful immediately after witnessing an incident of DV and less observably so as time passes, but this should not be assumed to indicate an absence of anxiety or fear. Boys tend to exhibit more externalizing behavior problems such as aggression and acting out, while girls tend to exhibit more internalizing behavior problems such as social withdrawal and depression.

It nearly goes without saying that children who are exposed to DV and are also physically or sexually abused are at a higher risk for emotional and psychological problems than those who witness such violence and are not physically or sexually abused.

In so many cases, it is difficult for those outside of these family systems to know with sufficient clarity what is going on, and it is often difficult to know how best to intervene. And unfortunately, the reality is that in many cases, meaningful intervention occurs only after a child has endured direct and continued exposure to DV.

Thank goodness there are protective factors that can mitigate the worst impacts, including a child’s literacy and overall intelligence, the extent to which the child is outgoing and socially competent, and whether the child has safe and supportive relationships with at least one influential adult (Carlson, 2000; Edleson, 2011; Hughes, et al., 2001).

As a society, we have an opportunity and responsibility to inject resiliency through academic, emotional, and social support. We must all grapple with whether there are ways we might more effectively intervene within our families, schools, and communities to instigate help and healing.


Brown, B., and Bzostek, S. (2003, August). Violence in the lives of children. Crosscurrents, 1. Bethesda, MD: Child Trends. Retrieved from http://www.childtrends.org/wp-content/uploads/2003/01/2003-15ViolenceChildren.pdf.

Carlson, B.E. (2000). Children exposed to intimate partner violence: Research findings and implications for intervention. Trauma, Violence, and Abuse, 1 (4), 321-342.

Edleson, J. (2011). Emerging responses to children exposed to domestic violence.Harrisburg, PA: VAWnet, a project of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence/Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Retrieved from http://www.vawnet.org/Assoc_Files_VAWnet/AR_ChildrensExposure.pdf.

Hughes, H. M., Graham-Bermann, S. A., and Gruber, G. (2001). Resilience in children exposed to domestic violence. In S. A. Graham-Bermann (Ed.). Domestic violence in the lives of children (pp. 67-90). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Kilpatrick, K.L., Litt, M., and Williams, L.M. (1997). Post-traumatic stress disorder in child witness to domestic violence. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 67 (4), 639-644.

Siegel, D., and Hartzell, M. (2004). Parenting from the inside out: How a deeper self-understanding can help you raise children who thrive. New York, NY: Tarcher.

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