One evening Pat Campbell* was in her one-year-old son’s room
when her husband came home and launched into one of his rages. He
had just found out that she was planning to leave him and, as she
puts it, “went crazy”. He started shouting and hitting her in the
face, which woke Ben* who had been asleep in his cot.
“Ben screamed his head off. He looked stunned – looks that
children are not supposed to have. That was when I knew I couldn’t
stay there,” says Campbell, who at the time was three months
pregnant with her second child.
Usually before talking to her husband, Campbell would make sure
that Ben was asleep and then go as far away from him as possible.
In the past she had been hit while Ben was in her arms.
Campbell is now divorced and living with the children in her own
flat. Once away from the violence she noticed a difference in
“When you’re not happy your child picks up on it. I couldn’t say
anything right and so we were in an environment where there was
always shouting and complaining. Ben was tense a lot of the time
but he’s now much calmer,” she says.
Campbell, who is training to be a teacher, has stopped worrying
about the impact of the violence on Ben.
“If I start worrying I will go crazy. I was worrying about him
growing up without his dad but that is easier to explain than him
growing up in that environment. It’s better to have just one parent
who is happy than one parent who is on eggshells and another who is
Every year at least 750,000 children witness domestic violence;
nine times out of 10 they are in the same or next room. Ben was
only a baby when he saw his father lash out at his mother, but, as
new research from the charity Refuge shows, domestic violence can
have a significant impact, even on very young children. (1)
Given how critical the first few years of a child’s life are to
their development, this is hardly surprising. Very young children
are highly dependent on their parents for love and protection, and
so violent parental conflict is bound to affect them. Also, very
young children are more likely to be at home when the violence
takes place and are more exposed to it than older children.
But, by the same token, young children are less well equipped to
deal with what they see (or directly experience – in half of
domestic violence cases children also face abuse). Not only will
they lack the cognitive skills to process and talk about the
trauma, but their physical development may mean they have little
choice but to sit and watch it taking place.
As it is, the children in the Refuge research were reported by
their mothers to have shown a range of responses during the
violence, from no emotional reaction at all to crying, screaming
and even vomiting. Nearly a quarter of the children had actually
intervened – two of whom were just two years old.
Worryingly, half of the children in the study were affected by
post-traumatic stress, with many children developing new fears.
Tanzi Bennison, children’s community liaison psychologist at
Refuge, says that men are the source of common new fears. “They may
have real anxiety in the presence of adult men and be clingy with
their mum and jumpy – a fear they didn’t have before they
She adds that some children also develop a fear of going to the
toilet alone. “My theory is that when you are going to the toilet
you are at your most vulnerable and it can be a scary time for
children. What can you do if someone comes in and attacks
The Refuge research also found that domestic violence can have a
significant effect on children’s speech and language. Part of this
is down to their home environment – living in an atmosphere of fear
and unpredictability seldom encourages children to try out new
words and in some cases children learn to be still and quiet in the
belief that doing so will prevent harm coming to their mother.
But Bennison, who works in refuges in London, says that the
language skills of the children can deteriorate further although
they have left the violent environment.
“The words they had picked up previously disappear until they
gain trust and start to feel secure again. They go almost
completely mute and don’t speak much at all until they get to know
Other behaviour can also regress – the child may start wetting
the bed – and skills that had been mastered may need to be
relearned. Emotionally the children may seem flat, but then become
jumpy if they hear a loud noise. Some may have trouble paying
attention, others become anxious when separated from their mother.
Many will have behavioural difficulties.
Bennison says that a lot of her work involves helping mothers to
communicate and play with their children. If the child has taken on
the parenting role to care for their mother, help may also be
needed to establish more normal parent-child roles.
Mothers are often surprised by how much their child knows about
the violence – some children can remember it in detail, right down
to the swearing and name-calling that took place.
“A lot of mums assume that because their child was young they
are not affected. But children are like sponges and absorb
everything. They feel the tension in their environment and take in
that fear and anger. Their mum may have thought they were asleep in
the other room but often they are wide awake and hear every insult,
punch and slap,” says Bennison.
Such is the trauma of what they see, some children find it
useful to re-enact the violence through play and change the ending
– often with their dad being arrested and taken to prison. Yet it
is not possible to change history and no matter how much the
children pretend otherwise, the traumatic memories are unlikely to
go away. It is then down to professionals to make sure that the
children, like the memories, remain firmly in mind.
* Not their real names.
(1) Assessment and Intervention for Young Children Exposed to
Domestic Violence, Refuge, 2005
‘I was so scared, I couldn’t move and lost my
Gayle Sanders can remember her father hitting and
punching her mother from an early age.
“The first incident I remember was when I was three or
four. I remember it because I remember hiding behind the curtain
and watching and hearing the violence. I lost my voice and
physically couldn’t move because I was so scared. My mother
couldn’t find where I was.”
She says that during her early years her main feeling
was of pure fear that her father would hurt her or her
“When you are living in that sort of environment it is
predictable but unpredictable. You always have to be on your guard
whether you are in the house or not. The violence followed me
As she got older the fear remained, even when she was
safe in friends’ houses.
“I was scared of everything. Loud noises can be alarm
clocks, the playground bell or a plate dropping, but for me loud
noises meant violence and I would be startled.”
During school hours, she would worry whether her mother
would still be alive as well as for her own safety.
When she was 12, her father killed her mother in front
of her, beating her up, strangling her on the front lawn and then
hanging her from the banisters. He was sent to prison for
manslaughter, and served 11 months of a three-year sentence. She
was taken into care.
Sanders, who now works in the domestic violence field,
says that when she looks back she can see how the violence affected
her, but that at the time, particularly when she was very young, it
wasn’t something that she analysed – it was just how her life