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Children's Experiences of Domestic Violence

1. Introduction  2. Experiences  3. Effects  4. Cycle of Violence  5. Women's Aid Response 5. Conclusions 6. References


It is important to remember that whole families suffer from domestic violence.  For every woman experiencing violence in the home there will usually be children who are also suffering.  Violence in the family cannot be kept hidden from the children, they will often witness the violence, be aware of the tense atmosphere, suffer as victims themselves or suffer in the aftermath of the violence.  

Children & Young People’s Experience of Domestic Violence 

Although research currently exists which clearly outlines the extent of domestic violence against women and the effects and context on their lives, relatively little is known about the impact of violence in the home on children.  As with women who suffer from domestic violence, every child’s experience will be different.

Research has shown that many women experiencing domestic violence suffer violent attacks during their pregnancy.  In their study of domestic violence in Northern Ireland, McWilliams and McKiernan (1993) found that approximately one third (19 out of 56 women) studied had been beaten during pregnancy.  This can cause serious injury to both mother and child. 

Many children are physically present during a violent assault on their mother.  There has been a large amount of research conducted which serves to prove this.  Hughes(1992) (cited Holder et al 1994) showed that 90% of children were in the same or next room when the violence was occurring.  Studies by Leighton (1989) (cited Holder et al 1994) showed that 68% of children were witnesses of violence in the home.  During violent assaults for many children an immediate and natural reaction will be to intervene to protect either their mother or other siblings. This may present an increased risk of physical injury to the child. 

Many researchers argue that there are close links between domestic violence and child abuse and that, where one exists, the co-existence of the other is highly likely.  The Hidden Victims Study (1994) showed that more than a quarter (27%) of the children involved had been hit or physically abused by the violent partner. 

The mother/child relationship can also be affected through domestic violence.  The circumstances in which women find themselves as a direct result of the abuse they suffer seldom resemble the idealised version of family life and of motherhood.  

It is important to remember that the blame for any negative impact on the mother/child relationship lies solely with the perpetrator of violence. The impact of continual physical attacks, verbal degradation, emotional torture and social isolation can have upon a women's life should never be underestimated or minimised. 

The most important point for professionals working with families to bear in mind is that for women to provide effective protection for their children, they themselves need to be protected and supported.

Effects of Domestic Violence on Children 

Our knowledge on the effects that domestic violence can have on children is, at present, somewhat limited.  Being “caught in the middle” of domestic violence can have adverse effects on a child.  It is important, however, to remember that every child’s experience of this conflict will be different and every child will utilise different coping mechanisms to deal with the situation.  Such coping mechanisms are unique to each child and will, in many ways, determine the outcome of how a child will react to domestic violence. 

The research which has been conducted in this area has shown that children suffer a wide range of both physical and emotional effects as a result of domestic violence. Children’s exposure to violence has also been researched in relation to the impact it may have on children’s schooling.  Hughes(1986) found that children often had difficulties academically as a result of violence in the home.  Overall effects included school phobia and difficulties in concentration.  McKay (1981) described children as being aggressive with peers, rebelling against adult instruction and authority and being unwilling to do schoolwork.  In their study of 56 women, McWilliams and McKiernan (1993) found that many women talked of both short term and long term effects they felt the violence had on their children. 

Some children may fail to show any negative signs at all, in fact, some may even show positive signs such as a sudden improvement in schoolwork.  However, we should never make any assumptions about how children have been affected by domestic violence. 

No symptom or syndrome inevitably follows abuse.  There are no set patterns of how a child who has experienced violence in the home will behave.  

A Cycle of Violence? 

The cycle of violence theory is one that has been the subject of much attention and criticism in recent decades.  This theory, which is derived in large from the social learning theory, is based upon the premise that violence breeds violence.   The legitimacy of such a theory must be questioned.  Although abuse may be transgenerational, it is by no means inevitable.  To assume that it does would be both naive and simplistic.  Many children will grow up to believe that violence is wrong and not an appropriate way of dealing with conflict.  It is important to remember that children are individuals with unique internal resources which enable them to draw their own conclusions and develop their own interpretations of the world around them.

Women’s Aid response to children and young people 

The majority of women who come to refuges have children.  Children arriving at the refuge may react in a variety of ways to the change of circumstances as well as to the history of violence.  Through time all children reach a better understanding of their situation by being sensitively helped to identify and deal with their feelings: sad, mad, glad, scared, lonely.  A wide range of play activities and material are used by workers as an integral part of life in the refuge.  Child workers in refuges will be sensitive to the needs of individual children and look for opportunities to help those with difficulties.  Children need explanations about what is happening and why, plus lots of reassurance of love and care.  They do have coping strategies of their own and these can be developed by understanding them.  During play children can relax.  Children are not confined to the refuge as there are outside activities such as swimming, visits to the museum, zoo, disco, skating, park and beach.  Taking part in social activities restores normality to children and mothers are encouraged to get their children back to school as soon as possible.  The easier it becomes for children to talk about problems the more supported and accepted they will feel socially. 


Most children and young people can and do recover from adverse effects of domestic violence.  Some find healthy coping mechanisms, some may find it difficult to come to terms with and will seek unhealthy ways of coping. 

Jaffe et al (1990) argue that children’s responses to witnessing their mother being assaulted by their father will vary according to their sex, age, stage of development and their role in the family.  Other factors may also play a role such as the extent of the violence, the frequency of the violence, repeated separations and moves, economic and social disadvantage and special needs that a child may have independent of the violence.

One crucial element in the recovery process is provision of support.  Support may take many forms and may be offered by various individuals and agencies working with women and children on a regular basis.

Organisations and individuals coming into contact with families need to be aware of signs and symptoms of domestic violence.  Policies and procedures need to be developed and put in place to ensure that women and children are receiving the support and information they need either to stay and survive in the situation or to leave. 

Children need supportive adults who will listen to them and help them come to terms with their own situation.  For adults to be supportive they need to understand how children are affected and develop positive responses in working with them.


1.     Campion, J (1991) Counselling Children, Whiting & Birch: London.

2.     Frude, N (1997) The Impact of Violence on Children, Parent’s Advice Conference, Conference Notes. 

3.     Holder, R et al (1994) Suffering in Silence? Children and Young People who witness Domestic Violence, Hammersmith and Fulham, Domestic Violence Forum: London.

4.     Jaffe et al (1990) Children of Battered Women, Sage Publications: London.

5.     McGee, C (1996) Children's experiences of domestic violence, published.  Child and Family Social Work, 2, p 13-23.  Blackwell science Ltd: London.

6.     McWilliams, M & McKiernan, 5, (1993) Bringing it out in the Open, HMSO: Belfast.

7.     McWilliams, M & Spence, L (1996) Taking Domestic Violence Seriously, Issues for the Civil and Criminal Justice System, The Stationary Office: Belfast. 

8.     Mullender, A& Morley, R (1994) Children Living with Domestic Violence - Putting Men's Abuse of Women in the Childcare Agenda, Whiting et Birch: London.



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