Helping Children Deal With Domestic Violence

The NSPCC believe 1 in 5 children live with domestic violence.  At To The Moon and Back Foster Care we are often asked to find a foster family who can support a child who has repeatedly witnessed domestic violence. This is recognised as a significant adverse experience for a child and seen often in addition to other signs of neglect and abuse.

We see the day to day effect of domestic violence on children and young people.  We work with our foster carers to enable them to think about how to best provide a safe and nurturing home where the child feels supported to recover from their experiences or at least manage the trauma associated with being exposed often to high levels of violence within their own home.

Our experience comes out of working with children who have experienced the highest level of severity of domestic violence, often from more than one perpetrator. Significant numbers of looked after children may have lived with adults who have moved through several relationships that have included high levels of violence and control. Our aim is to share some of our knowledge and insights to help those supporting families or their own children living with or moving on from living with domestic violence.

We are clear to say that not all children who have lived in a home where there has been domestic violence, will experience long term traumatic effects, however some children do.  Many people will know a friend, colleague or partner who grew up in a home where domestic violence was the norm and they may go on to show little outward impact. This is not to say it has not had an impact on a child, it maybe they have learnt to live with, hide or move on from this without repeating the same pattern. This demonstrates that light can be found at the end of the tunnel.

As a parent, who may have separated from a violent partner, a grandparent, supporting their grandchild or as a friend who simply wants to help someone they know, here are some ideas of the possible impacts and how you can help.

What we know is that children are resilient and can thrive despite having lived in the most challenging environments. For those living with violence who want to move on from it, we advocate the need to reach out for support and leave in a safe and planned way.  (We have added useful contacts at the end of this article)

“Children have the resilience to outlive their suffering given the chance” … Ismael Beah. This is one of my favourite quotes and when training foster carers, I like to share it.

We truly believe this statement and work with our families to enable this for the children we care for. We achieve it with individual nurturing of the child on a day to day basis alongside creative and therapeutic parenting skills, acquired as part of our ongoing training and development programme and as a result of working closely with our practitioners and therapists.

So what is domestic violence? Many assume it is violence against women by their male partners. The NSPCC state

Domestic abuse is any type of controlling, bullying, threatening or violent behaviour between people in a relationship. But it isn’t just physical violence – domestic abuse includes emotional, physical, sexual, financial or psychological abuse. Abusive behaviour can occur in any relationship. It can continue even after the relationship has ended. Both men and women can be abused or abusers”

We may hold negative feelings about a perpetrator and therefore be surprised why a child might still want to see their father, mother or step parent, who is known to have been violent in the home. I am reminded by one of my favourite quotes, from a survivor, “An abuser isn’t abusive 24/7. They usually demonstrate positive character traits most of the time. That’s what makes the abuse so confusing”

We may think that because the abuse happens when children are not in the room that this means it has not impacted on the child.  This is not the case; children can experience domestic abuse or violence in lots of different ways. They might see the abuse, hear the abuse from another room, see a parent’s injuries or distress afterwards, they may also try to stop it.

The NSPCC believe that about 62% of children in households where domestic violence is happening are also directly harmed, this may be because they are a baby in their mothers’ arms when she is hit, they may be teenagers who have tried to intervene to protect a parent or just been in the area and got hurt through the violence.

What might we see in children in the short term

The research has shown that babies may evidence their stress through poor sleep and eating patterns, they may present more clingy or fractious and therefore harder to soothe. In older children, the way children change in how they present is often an indicator that something is going on for them. This is likely to change further only when they are no longer living in an aggressive environment. We might see that for these children they remain more anxious children and that our role is to help them manage the impact of constantly being in a fight or flight state.  Nurturing, open and supportive home environments where children can ask questions and talk about their experiences are sometimes all a child needs, in order to develop their own coping mechanisms.

Children may show signs of stress at school, by a change in their studies or they may become more withdrawn or quiet. Often domestic violence happens in secret and so children are expected to keep this secret too. It is hard for children not to tell trusted adults about what is happening and even harder sometimes having to lie about parents’ injuries or the reasons why people cannot come over to their home.  Children may re-enact what they see and hear at home and so may be aggressive to other children, and consequently present as a bully or may be bullied themselves.  Children may present with changes to their sleep pattern and eating habits and may appear distracted when they are away from the non-abusing parent because of them being worried about how they are. Children may not invite friends’ home for fear of what they might witness, they may also become passive and compliant with adults around them. 

What we might see in children in the long term

Children in the longer term may be traumatised by their experience and show signs of post-traumatic stress. With our foster carers we see children being triggered by the behaviours of others that remind them of their experiences, for example, a slightly raised voice or a look of displeasure can trigger a flash back or raise anxiety in children.  We see children at times struggle to maintain positive relationships with others and subsequently go on to find themselves in unhealthy relationships.

Children are individuals and will respond to the witnessing of abuse or domestic violence in different ways. According to The Royal College of Psychiatrists (Women’s Aid website) children may present as follows:

  • They may become anxious or depressed
  • They may have difficulty sleeping
  • They have nightmares or flashbacks
  • They can be easily startled
  • They may complain of physical symptoms such as tummy aches and may start to wet their bed
  • They may have temper tantrums and problems with school
  • They may behave as though they are much younger than they are
  • They may become aggressive or they may internalise their distress and withdraw from other people
  • They may have a lowered sense of self-worth
  • Older children may begin to play truant, start to use alcohol or drugs, begin to self-harm by taking overdoses or cutting themselves or have an eating disorder
  • Children may also feel angry, guilty, insecure, alone, frightened, powerless or confused.
  • They may have ambivalent feelings towards both the abuser and the non-abusing parent.

What can we do to help children who have lived through domestic violence.

Our first and foremost priority is to ensure that they continue to live in a safe environment free of violence and control. When children feel safe, they can start to receive the help they need. There are great support services who can provide one to one support to enable the leaving of abusive environments or provide support to a family once they have left. (A list of services can be found at the end of this article.

Children need to be reassured that the situation is not their fault. Violence between adults is never a child’s fault and they must hear that. They must know that what happened is not OK, It was not their fault and that is was ok for them to feel scared or angry.

Children need to have access to safe adults to talk to about their experiences, when they are ready and if they want to but they must not feel pushed in to talking about it.  They need to hear that they did not deserve to have those experiences and that there was nothing they could have done to prevent it/change it. This they may need to hear way into the future and repeatedly if they need the reassurance. I know adults who still wonder if they could have stopped it.

Domestic violence is about control and children need to feel like they have some control in their lives. Providing structure and routine, predictability and choice are all important steps to recovery. For children who have lived waiting for the next incident, they need to have a sense of predictability. They need to know that this is not going to be repeated.

It is important that children whatever age can talk about what they have seen and heard, younger children might do this through play or drawing, this is a time to talk gently about how it is fine to have difficult feelings and support them through these. Older children may want to talk more openly about what they have seen and heard. It is important that you show you can manage hearing the difficult things and reassure children and young people that they are safe now. Sometimes it can be helpful to talk to children about triggers that may make them feel uncomfortable, for example a raised voice and how they can plan for them. If bedtimes are tough, ask them to help you plan how to respond and make it easier for them.

Our final thought is about the adults around the child.

When we support our foster families with caring for children who have experienced trauma, we always talk to them about the need for them to look after themselves. We model ourselves on what we want them as foster carers to provide for children.  We provide a safe openly trusting relationship with our team where they can talk about their feelings, especially those raised as a result of hearing the stories of what children have lived through.  We encourage them to have outlets to relieve stress such as mindfulness, good nutrition, sleep and exercise. It is amazing what you can do with the right support. If we have inspired you to think about fostering please contact us we would love to talk more about what we do and how we do it.

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