Skills for the Job: Respond to domestic violence

Polly Neate
Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Knowing how to respond to children experiencing domestic violence can make all the difference in ensuring they get the right support.

Children affected by domestic violence can be more prone to depression. Picture: Lucie Carlier
Children affected by domestic violence can be more prone to depression. Picture: Lucie Carlier

What are the different forms of domestic violence?

Domestic abuse normally takes the form of physical, emotional, psychological, sexual and financial abuse, but any behaviour that can be used to control someone can be defined as domestic abuse. Children can witness domestic violence happening to a parent, they can see an abused parent's injuries or emotional distress after an event, they might be forced to take part in abusing the victim (usually verbally), or they can be abused themselves.

What impact does it have on them?

According to section 120 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002, all children who witness domestic violence are being emotionally abused. Children are dependent on the adults around them, and feeling unsafe in their homes can have significant negative effects on them.

Very commonly, children feel that they are to blame. They might feel angry, guilty, insecure, alone, powerless or frightened, and may well feel ambivalent towards both abusive and non-abusive parents. Children love their parents very much, even when they are abusive, and they also might feel that the non-abusive parent should be protecting them.

Children affected by it can display high levels of anger, aggression, hostility, fear, disobedience and withdrawal and they may be more susceptible to depression and low self-esteem.

What are the signs a child may be affected by domestic violence?

It can be helpful to observe a child overnight, as affected children often find it hard to get to sleep, wet their beds, and have nightmares or flashbacks.

Some children will become disruptive and aggressive while some will become very obedient. Similarly, some children will become withdrawn, while others will be clingy towards teachers or other professionals. Because their home life is very chaotic, children may fail to complete homework, or have frequent absences from school. Older children might start to use drugs or alcohol, or suffer from self-harming behaviour or eating disorders.

What action should you take?

If you suspect that a child has been subject to domestic violence, ask them what's going on and let them know that they can talk to you, or provide them with alternative people they can speak to.

If they do let you know that they've been exposed to domestic abuse don't ask probing questions unless you have been trained to investigate, but let them know that you're there to listen. Don't look shocked or disbelieving, as that may stop them from opening up to you, and don't make them feel bad, for example by saying "You should have told me before".

Reassure them by staying calm, and tell them that they've done the right thing by talking to you. Acknowledge how hard it can be to talk to someone about these issues, and that they aren't to blame. Be honest about who you're going to tell, and why, and what you can and can't do to help.

Let them tell you as much as they want to, and then follow your child protection or safeguarding policy. Record what the child said in their own words, the time and date, and any physical injuries. Try to follow up yourself as much as you can, so that the child doesn't have to keep repeating their story to different people.

In the days after disclosure, let the child know what's going on and what's going to happen next. Also, get some support yourself, because dealing with domestic violence cases can be very distressing.

What support is available?

Women's Aid runs a website, The Hideout, where children and young people can access information and support.

Childline offers a service where children can chat to a counsellor online.

Women's Aid also runs national courses that can help professionals spot the signs of domestic violence, deal with it and support children and their families.

Polly Neate, chief executive, Women's Aid


  • Believe them. If you seem to doubt their story, they might feel that there's no one they can talk to
  • Don't investigate unless it is your job to do so
  • Don't judge or blame the victim
  • Look beyond their behaviour – children can show that something is wrong in a lot of different ways
  • If there is domestic violence going on, make sure they see a trained professional

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