Domestic violence and abuse
for parents and carers
This information is for parents and carers. It covers the effects that domestic violence and abuse can have on children, and how to try and avoid these problems.
The term ‘domestic violence and abuse’ is used to describe any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling and threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between anyone over 16 years, who are/have been intimately involved or are family members.
These incidents may be physical (including throwing objects), sexual, emotional (including verbal threats and controlling behaviour) or financial. Honour-based violence and forced marriage are forms of domestic violence and abuse.
Nowadays, domestic abuse can also happen on mobile phones, on the internet and on social networking sites - in other words it doesn't just happen at home.
Although a man abusing a woman is recognised more often, abusers may be male or female. Abuse can happen in any class, religion, ethnic group, occupation or age. It may occur in all types of relationships, including same sex relationships. Children may also experience domestic violence and abuse, or, if they are older, be domestically violent and abusive.
People often think that alcohol and mental illness can cause person to be violent. Alcohol does not cause domestic violence and abuse, but there is evidence that where domestic violence and abuse exists, alcohol is often present. Most people who are mentally ill are not violent.
Children of any age are affected by domestic violence and abuse. At no age will they be unaffected by what is happening, even when they are in the womb.
Obviously, it is very upsetting for children to see one of their parents (or partners) abusing, attacking or controlling the other.
Younger children may become anxious. They may complain of tummy-aches or start to wet their bed. They may find it difficult to sleep, have temper tantrums and start to behave as if they are much younger than they are. They may also find it difficult to separate from their abused parent when they start nursery or school.
Older children react differently. Boys seem to express their distress much more outwardly, for example by becoming aggressive and disobedient. Sometimes, they start to use violence to try and solve problems, and may copy the behaviour they see within the family. Older boys may play truant and start to use alcohol or drugs (both of which are a common way of trying to block out disturbing experiences and memories).
Girls are more likely to keep their distress inside. They may become withdrawn from other people, and become anxious or depressed. They may think badly of themselves and complain of vague physical symptoms. They are more likely to have an eating disorder, or to harm themselves by taking overdoses or cutting themselves. They are also more likely to choose an abusive partner themselves.
Children of any age can develop symptoms of what is called 'Post-traumatic Stress Disorder'. They may get nightmares, flashbacks, become very jumpy, and have headaches and physical pains.
Children dealing with domestic violence and abuse often do badly at school. Their frightening experiences at home make it difficult to concentrate in school, and if they are worried about their abused parent, they may refuse to go to school.
As adults, children who have witnessed violence and abuse are more likely to become involved in a violent and abusive relationship themselves. Children tend to copy the behaviour of their parents. Boys learn from their fathers to be violent to women. Girls learn from their mothers that violence is to be expected, and something you just have to put up with.
By making sure that domestic violence and abuse do not remain a shameful secret for the child is the first step.
Professionals working with children should therefore keep this in mind when working with children whose behaviour is disturbed and distressed.
For the more serious long-term effects of domestic violence and abuse, parent and child treatments are available, as are individual treatments and group treatments for children with issues such as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.
Children are better able to cope and recover when they get the right help and support, for example from other family members, peers, school. Some children find it helpful to speak to a professional (like trained counsellors).
It is not uncommon for victims of domestic violence and abuse to take a long time to recognise what is happening. For some families, domestic violence and abuse are a "normal" part of family life. Even when children realise that the situation is wrong, shame can make it difficult to speak out.
However, having a trusting relationship outside the home can increase the chances that someone affected by domestic violence and abuse will manage to talk about their experience.
Sharing the secret with someone outside the family is the first step in breaking out of the cycle of violence and abuse.
Professionals including doctors, nurses, health visitors, teachers and social workers are trained to keep watch for signs of domestic violence and abuse. You can always talk to them and they will work with you and other professionals to keep you and your children safe. In many areas, specialist domestic violence organisations can offer support.
Remember, the most important thing is to keep yourself and your children safe. Domestic violence and abuse is a crime, so don't hold back from involving the police.
Once out of the domestically violent or abusive relationship, practical help may be needed from professionals like social workers or solicitors. They will be able to help with finding a place to live, dealing with money problems, and making contact and school arrangements for the children.
"It’s only in the last year or so that I began to think that a family could be a good place to be…a home”. I’m the eldest, and I took a lot of my Dad’s fury – or just being pissed which is what it often was. I know my Mum wasn’t always a saint – she could really wind him up - in fact she does it to me sometimes and then I get terrified that I’ll react like him.
Anyway sometimes they would just argue and shout, but then I’d seen what he could do when he loses it. I had to take Mum to hospital once and it was just horrible. In fact I remember being amazed how she looked almost normal when they’d cleaned her up. But seeing it or even worse just hearing it was … don’t know ... I couldn’t bear it, and I wanted to kill him. I couldn’t I know – even if I was strong enough – so I just used to hold on to the little ones and sort of hide with them till it was over.
But it did get so difficult. I didn’t want to go home after school, so I’d stay out late sometimes with my mates. Then my Mum started saying I was just like him. That was the worst time ever.
One day my mum spoke to someone on a helpline. After that, they had a big row and then he left home. Things sort of calmed down, but I was still scared that he would come back or I’d be like him. Then we had this counselor who talked to my Mum, and me and my sisters together. Somehow it all began to seem better and I felt it was possible to move on."
Childline - Free, confidential helpline dedicated to children and young people: : 0800 1111.
NSPCC - The NSPCC Helpline provides advice and support to adults who are concerned about the safety or welfare of a child. the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000.
Respect - UK membership association for domestic violence perpetrator programmes and associated support services. Helpline for perpetrators: Call 0808 802 4040 (free from landlines and most mobiles).
The Hideout - Women's Aid have created this space to help children and young people to understand domestic abuse, and how to take .
The Samaritans - Provide a 24-hour service offering confidential emotional support to anyone who is in crisis. Helpline 08457 909090 (UK), 1850 609090 (ROI); e-mail: email@example.com
Victim Support - Gives free and confidential help to victims of crime, witnesses, their family, friends and anyone else affected across England and Wales. Support line: 0845 30 30 900.
Women’s Aid - National charity working to end domestic violence against women and children.
- NICE - Domestic violence and abuse: multi-agency working, Public health guideline [PH50]. Published: 26 February 2014
- Grasping the nettle: alcohol and domestic violence, Revised edition, 2010, Sarah Galvani, University of Bedfordshire, Factsheet, Alcohol Concern.
- A Review of Literature on Effective Interventions that Prevent and Respond to Harm Against Adults, Scottish executive, 2007.
- Improving safety, reducing harm: children, young people and domestic violence; A practical toolkit for frontline practitioners.Department of Health, 2009.
- Asian Women Domestic Violence and Mental Health Toolkit, 2009.
- Rutter, M. & Taylor, E. (eds) (2008)'Rutter’s Child and Adolescent Psychiatry' (5th edn). London: Blackwell Publishing.
Revised by the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Child and Family Public Engagement Editorial Board (CAFPEB).
With grateful thanks to Dr Virginia Davies, Dr Vasu Balaguru, and Thomas Kennedy.
This resource reflects the best possible evidence at the time of writing.
Published: Jul 2015
Review due: Jul 2018
© Royal College of Psychiatrists