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The Silent Victims: Children

Domestic violence casts a long and dark shadow not only over its immediate victims but also over the most vulnerable members of our society – children.

How Does Domestic Abuse Impact Children?

Being in the same room or house where domestic violence is taking place, and consequently being able to see or hear it happening, can affect a child just as severely as if they themselves were being physically hurt or abused.

Domestic abuse can impact children to such an extent, that the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 recognises that any child witnessing domestic abuse, is also a victim.

Children who witness domestic violence face a multitude of challenges that can significantly impact their emotional, social, and psychological development. In this blog, we will be outlining the devastating effects that domestic violence can have on children, and highlighting the importance of understanding and addressing these issues to break the cycle of violence.

The Impact of Abuse

Short Term

Emotional Impact

Witnessing domestic violence can have profound and immediate emotional consequences on children. In the short term, they may experience a range of intense emotions such as fear, anxiety, a diminished sense of self-worth, and confusion as a result of their traumatic experiences. Witnessing violence within their home, a place of supposed safety, can significantly disrupt their sense of security and stability, leaving them incredibly distressed. Children may also grapple with feelings of helplessness and guilt, often blaming themselves for the aggression that they are witnessing. This emotional toll can manifest itself in disrupted sleep patterns, nightmares, and heightened stress levels, severely affecting their overall well-being. Constant exposure to such traumatic behaviour can also alter a child’s perception and understanding of relationships, trust, and safety, potentially putting them at risk of developing serious long-term mental health issues, such as depression and PTSD.

The emotional repercussions of witnessing domestic violence can be devastating, highlighting the importance of seeking the right interventions and support to mitigate the lasting effects of domestic abuse on a child’s emotional wellbeing and development.

Behavioural Changes

The behavioural impact of witnessing domestic violence can be equally profound for children. Often, when exposed to this trauma children may exhibit immediate changes in their behaviour as a coping mechanism. They may become withdrawn, displaying signs of social isolation and shyness, or conversely, act out in anger and defiance, mirroring the violent behaviours they have witnessed to incorporate aggression into their own interactions. In pre-school aged children, the stress and anxiety induced by a volatile environment in the home can lead to a regression in developmental milestones, meaning they may begin to exhibit the behaviours of a much younger child, such as bed-wetting, thumb-sucking and frequent crying or whining. Children may also begin to struggle with heightened separation anxiety, and show signs of extreme fear through behaviours like stuttering and hiding.

This broad spectrum of possible behavioural changes aren’t just a disruption to a child’s daily life, but they can also seriously hinder academic performance and social relationships.

Educational Challenges

The turmoil experienced at home as a result of domestic abuse can also follow a child to school, presenting further challenges throughout their education. The above emotional and behavioural issues often impede a child’s ability to focus, concentrate, retain information, and participate in classroom activities. These factors can make it incredibly difficult for a child to progress through school as normal, and they may experience serious academic setbacks as a result. In addition to potential issues in the classroom, children may also struggle socially at school. The behavioural problems that can arise from witnessing domestic abuse in the home may lead to disciplinary problems in academic settings, as well as potential social isolation, as a child struggles to form healthy relationships with peers.

Early recognition and appropriate interventions are crucial in mitigating these educational obstacles for a child and fostering a path towards academic success and emotional well-being.

 

Long Term

Mental Health

The long-term ramifications of witnessing domestic violence early in life often manifest in persistent emotional and psychological difficulties that can continue into adulthood. Individuals who witness domestic abuse when they are growing up are at an increased risk of developing serious mental health conditions such as complex post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and emotionally unstable personality disorder. The impact of living with this type of trauma, and any subsequent mental health issues, can disrupt many aspects of an adult’s life, presenting challenges with financial stability, relationships and work.

Relationships

The long-term effects of witnessing abuse during childhood can significantly impact a person’s ability to form and maintain healthy relationships later in life. Exposure to domestic violence can shape a child’s understanding of interpersonal dynamics, trust, and emotional intimacy. Individuals who have witnessed abuse may struggle with establishing secure attachments, often experiencing difficulties in trusting others or forming deep connections. The fear, anxiety, and unpredictability associated with domestic violence can contribute to challenges in communication, conflict resolution, and emotional vulnerability. These individuals may grapple with insecurities, fear of abandonment, or a heightened sensitivity to perceived threats within their relationships.

Children will learn from the behaviour of the adults around them, meaning the patterns of unhealthy and abusive behaviour that they’ve witnessed growing up can become an internalised blueprint for their own relationships in adulthood. This means that aggression cam be unintentionally replicated and they may go on to become an abuser themselves, perpetuating a cycle of dysfunction.

Breaking free from the long-term impacts of witnessing abuse often requires therapeutic intervention and support to help individuals build a foundation for healthy, positive relationships in adulthood.

Risky Behaviours

The trauma of witnessing domestic violence can increase the likelihood of an individual engaging in risky behaviours later in life, such as substance abuse. People who have experienced the stress and emotional turmoil of an abusive environment may turn to substances such as drugs or alcohol as a way to numb painful memories and escape overwhelming emotions. The lack of healthy coping mechanisms learned during formative years, coupled with the desire to dull emotional pain, can lead to a higher risk of substance abuse in adulthood. Additionally, as we know that those who witness abuse are at an increased risk of developing mental health issues, this further heightens the likelihood that they may engage in risky behaviours.

Tackling substance abuse often requires comprehensive specialist support that addresses both the emotional scars from witnessing abuse and provides healthier coping mechanisms for navigating life’s challenges.

 

Conclusion

Each child responds differently to their experiences of abuse and trauma. The sooner they are able to receive the help and support they need, the easier it will be for them to heal. A specialist worker will be able to help them begin to process their memories, learn how to form healthy relationships and coping mechanisms, and ultimately facilitate their growth into a strong, well-rounded adult.

If you are concerned that your child may be suffering because they have witnessed domestic abuse, contact us today and we can help you to choose the right path for your child.

1 in 3 children who witness domestic abuse, go on to become a victim. Talk to us. Change starts with a conversation.

If you’re concerned about someone you know, and are looking to find specialised support for them, such as counselling or an ear to listen, call our helpline today.

Looking for support? Call our helpline today.

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