250.000 children in England live with domestic violence. One in seven (14.2%) children and young people under the age of 18 will have lived with domestic violence at some point in their childhood. (Radford et al, 2011). 61.7% of women in a refuge on the Day to Count 2017 had children (aged under 18) with them. (Women’s Aid, 2018 – data from Women’s Aid Annual Survey 2017)
Combined with information on the percentage of all children who have been exposed to domestic abuse in their homes, it is estimated that at least one child in every reception school class has been living with abuse for their whole life.( SafeLives research: Children living with domestic abuse 2107)
Domestic violence has a devastating impact on children and young people that can last into adulthood. Children’s health is also likely to have been seriously affected from witnessing abuse and also in many cases, from abuse which they themselves have suffered. 62% of children living in domestic abuse households are directly harmed by the perpetrator of the abuse, in addition to the harm caused by witnessing the abuse of others.
Witnessing domestic abuse is a powerful experience that can overwhelm the child’s capacity to regulate emotions. They are left with a state of fear, helplessness, and lack of control. It changes the way the child understands themselves, others and the world. (R. Balbernie. 2017)
In an article in US Today in Oct 18 by Jane O’Donnell, she explains how medical professionals and researchers have long studied the effect of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and lifelong mental health and addiction. But the growing awareness of the link between childhood traumas on long-term physical health is more resent. The term toxic stress has become more widely used as people with ACEs are more likely to experience “toxic stress” – repeated, extreme activation of their stress response.
Toxic stress affects the developing brain, the immune system, the cardiovascular system and the metabolic regulatory system, says Al Race, deputy director of the Centre on the Developing Child at Harvard. It dramatically increases the risk of hypertension, heart disease and diabetes, among other costly health conditions.
Children with four or more ACEs are four times more likely to suffer from depression in their lifetimes, eight times more likely to become alcoholics and 20 times more likely to use intravenous drugs, research shows. Those who are exposed to very high doses of adversity without caring adults to help can have more than double the lifetime risk of heart disease and cancer and a nearly 20-year difference in life expectancy. (Jayne O’Donnell USA Today Oct 2018)
Witnessing violence can affect a child’s ability to: trust, learn, manage anger, regulate emotion (self-control), play and explore, develop self-esteem develop socially and emotionally.
Common signs of toxic stress in children:
- Emotional distress (crying, irritability, insecurity,
- Poor coping skills.
- Mood swings.
- Sleep disturbances: e.g. fear of falling asleep, nightmares, difficulty settling and night waking.
- Eating disorders.
- Fear and anxiety triggered by places or people that remind them of past trauma.
- Physical complaints, stress-derived poor health restlessness, over-vigilance).
- Substance misuse.
- Loss of recent developmental achievements.
Children, regardless of whether they have experienced abuse directly, are affected by violence in their home display the same emotional responses as children who have been physically and emotionally abused. Children often have very low self-esteem, behavioural difficulties, poor school attendance and attainment. They can feel very isolated and may suffer from poor mental health. Children who have been abused or who have witnessed domestic abuse are more likely to commit suicide, become involved in anti-social behaviour or to become perpetrators themselves (Stark 2007).
Children can unconsciously play out different “roles” with family members. These may include taking on the role of the referee, becoming the non-abusive parent’s confidant and supporter, being used as the family’s scapegoat or feeling under pressure to play the part of the ‘perfect child’. Drawings by children who have / are experiencing abuse, often depict themselves as very small, draw pictures of explosion and volcanoes, fill the inside of a picture of themselves in black and draw “monsters.”
The impact of domestic abuse on the victim and on children is severe and long-lasting. And families live with domestic abuse for far too long before getting effective help – on average 2.7 years. Cutting the time it takes to find and help victims and their families is critical to stop murder, serious injury, and enduring harm. “In recent years, an increasing number of victims and families have been identified by other agencies such as health and children’s to social services. But still too many families are only getting help when the abuse reaches crisis point and the police are called – and not every family gets the right help then.”(SafeLives Getting it right first time 2015)
Everyone who works with children has a responsibility for keeping them safe. No single practitioner can have a full picture of a child’s needs and circumstances and, if children and families are to receive the right help at the right time, everyone who comes into contact with them has a role to play in identifying concerns, sharing information and taking prompt action.( Working Together to Safeguard Children 2018)
The Government’s: Transforming the responses to domestic abuse, consultation responses and draft bill. Published on 21st of January 2019 states: We know domestic abuse can have a devastating, long-term impact on children. Growing up in a household of fear and intimidation can profoundly impact children’s wellbeing and development, with lasting effects into adulthood. Children exposed to domestic abuse are more likely to suffer from mental health difficulties, do worse at school and experience domestic abuse in later life.
Children exposed to domestic abuse are victims of child abuse. The Serious Crime Act 2015 made it explicit that cruelty to children which causes psychological suffering can be a crime. This includes when children are emotionally harmed by exposure to domestic abuse, holding perpetrators to account for the impact of their abuse on children. Under existing law, the definition of ‘harm’ to children recognises the impact of seeing or hearing the abuse of someone else, so local authorities may take action to protect children who witness domestic abuse.
Living with domestic abuse and effects every part if child’s life; education, health , relationships… it is violation of their human rights and rights of a child and results in serious short- and long-term physical and mental health problems. The statistics cannot be ignored. This is an issue, which is present in every context, professional sector, and area of life. We must raise awareness, educate, protect and assure that appropriate support is available .We must all take action.