According to research from UNICEF in 2006, there are up to 32,000 children and young people living with domestic abuse in Northern Ireland.
There are many myths surrounding children’s experience of witnessing and intervening during episodes of domestic abuse.
First and foremost, it is important to remember that all blame for the abuse children witness is placed on the abuser, not on the abused parent.
This may seem obvious to some, however many people will often blame the abused parent for not leaving an abusive relationship instead of blaming the abuser themselves.
How are children exposed to domestic abuse?
The level of exposure is different for each child, even within the same family. However many will experience some or all of the following:
- Witnessing a parent being assaulted, emotionally blackmailed, verbally abused or humiliated by her partner
- Hearing abuse taking place when in another room of the house
- Seeing their mother with physical injuries (black eyes, limping, cuts etc)
- The child themselves may be implicated in the abuse – for instance a child may be used as an excuse for the abuse (blaming it on the child’s behaviour) or being threatened by the abusive parent as a means to control the mother
- They may learn about what happened to their mother from the mother themselves or other family members or friends of the family
- A child may also be abused directly by the perpetrator – this is not uncommon in a domestic abuse situation
- A child may be forced by the perpetrator to take part in the abuse
How does domestic abuse impact upon children/young people’s wellbeing?
Each child is different and levels of resilience vary, but many children will experience/feel:
- Anxiety: constantly fearing that the perpetrator will abuse their mother and injure/kill her
- Guilt: Some children may blame themselves for the violence, especially if the abuser uses the children as an excuse for being violent. They may also feel guilt at not being able to prevent the violence
- Depressed & hopeless: many will feel that the situation will never get better and this will result in depression and feelings of isolation
- Embarrassment: they may worry about neighbours or others becoming aware of the abuse and compare their family situation with that of others. They may feel resentful and embarrassed that their family is not ‘normal’.
- Helpless: feeling that they cannot help their parent escape their violent situation, resulting in feelings of worthlessness
- Vengeful: they may wish bad things would happen to the abuser
- Confusion: as many children cannot understand the power imbalance in violent relationships they may wonder, and feel resentment, about their mother not leaving her violent partner
- Panic: they may fear how they will be able to cope without the abuser’s income or input into the family home
- Ill health: the stress and trauma of living in an abusive situation can take its toll on children. They may display physical symptoms of stress and trauma such as stomach aches, bed-wetting, insomnia. They may have psychological or mental health problems such as an inability to focus or concentrate, nightmares and flashbacks, eating disorders, low self-worth, depression, suicidal thoughts.
- Behavioural difficulties: Many children in abusive situations have behavioural issues, such as aggression, temper tantrums, abuse of drugs or alcohol, refusal to attend school.
Recent research from the University of Ulster has suggested that there is a link between children witnessing domestic abuse from an early age and developing serious mental illnesses in the future, such as schizophrenia. There is also a salient link between children witnessing domestic abuse and dropping out of school, youth homelessness, and engaging in risk taking behaviour (such as drug-taking and alcohol consumption).
It is therefore vital that young people are properly supported if they are experiencing domestic abuse in the home. Women’s Aid offers You and Me, Mum, a 10 week programme which aims to help mothers support children and young people who have lived with domestic abuse.
Talking to your child about domestic abuse
Listen to how they are feeling. Give them 100% attention by getting down to their physical level and hearing everything they say. Put your adult thoughts on hold for a while and try to see the situation through their eyes. The picture you get may be very different to the one you had formulated in your own mind. Encourage your children to talk about their feelings, concerns and hopes for the future.
Listen for the feelings being expressed and acknowledge these. Don’t tell your child how to feel but let them know you understand by reflecting on and accepting the feelings they have shared.
Try to be honest about the situation, without frightening them. Try not to make any promises you cannot keep.
Explain that the violence is not their fault and they are not responsible for the behaviour or the situation. Explain that violence is wrong and it does not solve problems. Tell them you love them and reassure them that this will never change. Give them plenty of hugs to show you love them and to give them the emotional support they need.
Some things to say to your child:
- It’s not your fault
- You can always tell me how you feel
- I will listen to you
- You have the right to feel safe
- There is nothing you could have done to prevent or change it
- I care about you, you are important to me, and
- We can think of ways to keep you safe in the future.
There are a range of resources that can help you to address this issue with your children. The Hideout is a UK website with information, activities, a quiz and stories of children living with domestic abuse. You can also get advice from Women’s Aid on how to talk to and support your children. There are also organisations that can help you as a parent and that can support your children.