Impact of domestic violence on children and young people

Professional responses to domestic violence should be informed by the perspectives of children. Practitioners need to recognise that domestic violence may be a cause of a range of physical, emotional and behavioural difficulties for children. Work with perpetrators, though controversial, is an important aspect of reducing domestic violence and its impact on children and young people.

Councils have a statutory duty to become involved in domestic violence cases if children are in need of protection or support, and are responsible for delivering services to families affected by domestic violence.

However, the provision of domestic violence services in the statutory and voluntary sectors continues to be patchy, particularly in rural areas. Organisations involved in providing services in the area of domestic violence need to be guided by the three interrelated principles of promoting:

● The safety and protection of children.

● The empowerment and safety of those who experience domestic violence.

● The responsibility and accountability of perpetrators of violence.

Keys to effective provision

Listen to children and young people

Children need to talk about the domestic violence they experience. In order to do this, however, they need to feel safe, be respected, listened to and helped to understand what is happening in their families.

Direct work with children individually or in groups is designed to facilitate the expression of feelings, to reassure children that they are not at fault, to help rebuild self-esteem and to develop safety plans for the future. This points to the need for investment in preventive and therapeutic services. There is also an increasing awareness of the need for refuges and other crisis services to be appropriately resourced.

Particular problems have been identified for teenage boys who may not be allowed to stay at some refuges. In their work with victims of domestic violence, practitioners should be ready to work directly with children and, at the least, enable them to talk about what is happening in their family.

Practitioners should respect and believe what children are saying about their situation, but they should also recognise the coping strategies that may be helping children to survive and be willing to affirm their resilience rather than undermine it by emphasising risks and danger.

Acknowledging the rights and capacities of children and young people as experts in their own lives, who have a contribution to make in any assessment of strengths, risks and need, is work that requires skill, sensitivity and confidence.

Collaborate with related agencies

There is now a general recognition that child protection procedures should not be narrowly or mechanistically applied but that partnership work centred on individual needs is required.

Housing, health and education responses should be as much a priority as child protection and criminal justice responses. Training to raise awareness, explore values and develop skills in recognising, assessing and dealing with domestic violence should be compulsory in initial and continuing education for teachers, health workers, social workers and offender managers.

Develop systematic screening

Children, young people and women experiencing domestic violence value the support of health and social care professionals, although there is often a fear that these professionals may play a role in the removal of children and this may act as a barrier to their seeking support.

In their professional assessments, practitioners should be aware that domestic violence may feature in the lives of children and young people in their care.

They need to develop systematic screening using an appropriate and sensitive protocol of questions that will draw out domestic violence as a possible cause of physical, emotional or behavioural problems.

Work with perpetrators

Working with perpetrators, normally within a criminal justice framework, also has a contribution to make to the well-being of children. Research indicates that it is particularly important for boys to see that it is possible for their fathers to accept responsibility for and change their behaviour, so that they do not identify with domestic violence as an expression of masculinity.

There is widespread agreement that the best approach consists of a combination of cognitive-behavioural and gender analysis work, though a more radical psychosocial approach is advocated by some. Work with perpetrators needs to be specific to domestic violence, rather than more general work on cognitive skills or anger management, which are not thought to be appropriate.

Programmes for perpetrators are contentious because the evidence of their success is inconclusive and there is a fear that, where they fail, women and children may be placed in greater danger. There is also some concern they divert resources away from other services for victims and that perpetrators may participate in order to avoid harsher criminal justice responses. Nevertheless, a recent report by the National Offender Management Service indicates some success in changing offenders’ attitudes.

Provide post-abuse support

Some work with mothers and children in post-abuse settings is aimed at helping them to regenerate family relationships by replacing previously destructive patterns of interaction with predictable, supportive ways of living together.

Consider diversity

For children and young people from minority ethnic families whose mothers leave an abusive relationship, the disruption caused by separation from family and friends can be intensified by the ostracism of both mother and children from their community. Such women and children also report experiencing widespread stereotyping and discrimination when accessing services.

Professionals may, for example, appear to find it easier to attribute problems to “oppressive” cultural backgrounds than attempt to understand and seek appropriate responses to complex needs, highlighting the need for culturally specific services.

Research has also highlighted that children with disabilities may be further marginalised by not having their views heard.

Further reading

● Scie Research briefing 25: Children’s and young people’s experiences of domestic violence involving adults in a parenting role

● Scie Practice guide 6: Involving children and young people in developing social care

● Scie Resource guide 1: Families that have alcohol and mental health problems: partnership working

Women’s Aid



Save the Children

National Offender Management Service

Research abstracts: Domestic violence

Author: RADFORD Lorraine, HESTER Marianne

Title: Mothering through domestic violence

Publisher: Jessica Kingsley, 2006, 176p, bibliog.

Abstract: This book reveals how undermining mothering – specifically, family courts and social work agencies blaming mothers for their own victimisation – plays a key role in locking women into abusive relationships and exacerbating the damage done by domestic violence.

Author: HENNING Kris

Title: Long-term psychological adjustment to witnessing interparental physical conflict during childhood.

Reference: Child Abuse and Neglect, 21(6), June 1996, pp501-515.

Abstract: Discusses the results of a retrospective survey of undergraduate students to examine the psychological impact of witnessing interparental physical aggression during childhood. The survey found that men and women who witnessed interparental physical conflict reported higher levels of psychological distress than a comparison group of young adults who never observed physical aggression between their parents.

Author: O’LEARY Daniel K, WOODLIN Erica M FRITZ Patti A Timmons

Title: Can we prevent the hitting? Recommendations for preventing intimate partner violence between young adults.

Reference: Journal of Aggression Maltreatment and Trauma, 13(3/4), 2006, pp.125-181.

Abstract: This article provides a review of prevention programs to reduce physical aggression against partners, and offers future prevention initiatives. The authors present an overview of the prevalence of and risk factors for physical aggression against partners, with a special focus on aggression in young adults.


Title: Letting them get away with it: fathers, domestic violence and child welfare.

Reference: Critical Social Policy, 27(2), May 2007, pp.181-202.

Abstract: Constructed as perpetrators or offenders, men’s identities as fathers remain invisible with serious consequences for the development of policies and practices which engage with them as “domestically violent fathers”.

Author: LYONS Sandra J, HENLY Julia R, SCHUERMAN John R

Title: Informal support in maltreating families: Its effect on parenting practices.

Reference: Children and Youth Services Review, 27(1), January 2005, pp. 21-38.

Abstract: Enlisting the aid of parents’ informal support networks in child maltreatment interventions is a widely accepted practice yet little is known about how support affects parenting in maltreating families. This study examines the role of informal support among families receiving child welfare services.

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