impact of domestic abuse on children
While we know from the literature on domestic abuse that mothers often make strenuous efforts to protect children, research also tells us that the pervasive nature of domestic abuse means that children are often very aware of, and at times directly involved in, the abuse.
Domestic abuse does not always stop after separation; many children continue to be affected even if they no longer live with the perpetrator. Some children’s lives are characterised by moving house several times in order to flee from the perpetrator. These repeated upheavals can cause disruptions to their education, as well as a loss of friends, family members and belongings.
Research has shown domestic abuse acts to undermine the relationship between mother and child. Domestic abuse is therefore often seen as an attack on the mother-child relationship. Women describe exhaustion as a result of anxiety and violent attacks, and parenting strategies that are orientated around minimising the severity of domestic abuse, rather than what they think is good or important for their children. This, along with the fact that women are verbally, physically and sexually abused in front of their children, alerts us to the fact that domestic abuse not only undermines the respect that mothers experiencing domestic abuse have for themselves but can also undermine the authority which they need to parent confidently.
The impact of domestic abuse on children can be short and/or long term for children. These effects are overlapping but can be broadly categorised as being physical, social, emotional, and behavioural.
Children who have experienced domestic abuse may exhibit physical symptoms that are associated with trauma and stress. For instance, they may develop eczema, experience bed-wetting, have nightmares, or suffer from sleep disturbances.
Some children sustain physical injuries which can result from directs assaults made by the perpetrator. Children may also sustain injuries as a result of intervening to protect their mother or siblings during attacks. At its most extreme children may be killed by the perpetrator.
Social and emotional
Research reports that children who have experienced domestic abuse can have intense feelings of fear and anxiety. Many children feel guilty and responsible for the abuse that it is happening. They may feel responsible for protecting their siblings, their mother and pets. Children who have experienced domestic abuse also describe feelings of extreme sadness and experience low self-esteem and depression.
Children endure severe disruptions to their lives as a result of domestic abuse. They might find it difficult to attend and concentrate at school. Some children become socially isolated and as a result find it difficult to make and keep friends.
Given the physical, social and emotional effects of domestic abuse, it is not surprising that children who experience domestic abuse are more likely to have behavioural and developmental problems than other children. Some children may experience ‘externalising’ problems, for example, they may become aggressive or ‘act out’. Other children may experience ‘internalising’ problems, for example, they may become introverted or withdrawn.
How children are able to express distress or feelings about domestic abuse can depend on individual circumstances. Young children are more likely to have physical symptoms connected with anxiety. For instance, disturbed sleep or excessive screaming as babies. Older children may express distress in other ways; they may, for example, try to remove themselves from the situation by avoiding home.
The ‘cycle of violence’ is often mentioned when considering the behavioral impact of domestic violence on children. There is, however, no conclusive evidence to support the theory that children who have witnessed domestic abuse will grow up to be perpetrators of, or victims of, domestic abuse in later life. In fact, research shows that the majority of men who perpetrate domestic abuse grew up in a non-abusive environment. Many children exposed to domestic violence realise that it is wrong, and actively reject violence of all kinds.
Factors that can influence the effects on children
The harmful effects that domestic abuse has on children should be taken seriously. However, it should be noted that studies also reveal that some children living with domestic abuse ‘do as well’ as children who are not living with domestic abuse. Why some children cope better than others is often explained by the concept of ‘resilience’.
Resilience is the idea that children have different capacities that allow them to overcome the negative effects of an adversity like domestic abuse. ‘Protective factors’ can help build children’s resilience, while ‘risk factors’ can reduce it.
Protective and risk factors
Factors like the severity of abuse and length of time that children are exposed to it are important for children’s resilience. Factors that can protect children against the adverse effects of domestic abuse include children’s relationship with their non-abusing parents as well as access to support from their family, friends and community.
How Cedar meets the needs of children affected by domestic abuse
Cedar’s evaluation provides compelling messages about the impact this approach has had on the lives of children and women. A clear message is that family relationships have significantly improved for most of those taking part in Cedar groups.
Greater knowledge about the impact that domestic abuse has on children has lead to more consideration given to the ways that children can be supported and protected against the adverse effects of domestic abuse. By using a group work model, Cedar addresses specific issues such as the secrecy, shame and isolation that are often associated with domestic abuse. It provides children with access to support services that address their own needs and experiences. Children’s support is linked with support for the non-abusing mother and nurtures this relationship; it directly addresses the attack that domestic abuse can represent on the mother-child relationship. Cedar aims to strengthen this relationship and, therefore, fosters sustainable support for children.
Read more about how Cedar supports Domestic abuse recovery.
 Humphreys, C, Lowe, P and Williams, S (2009) ‘Sleep disruption and domestic violence: exploring the interconnections between mothers and children’, Child and Family Social Work, 14, 6-14
 Sternberg, K, Lamb, M, Guterman, E and Abbott, C (2006) ‘Effect of early and later family violence on children’s behavior problems and depression: A longitudinal multi-informant perspective’, Child Abuse & Neglect, 30, 283-306 and Martinez-Torteya, C, Bogat, A, von Eye, A and Levondosky, A (2009)’ Resilience Among Children Exposed to Domestic Violence’, Child Development, 80, 562-577
 Stark, E. (2009). Violence against women in families and relationships. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Praeger/ABC-CLIO.
 Grych, J, Jouries, E, Swank, P, McDonald, R and Norwood, W (2000) ‘Patterns of adjustment among children of battered women’, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 68, 84-94 and Hughes, H, Graham-Bermann, S and Gruber, G (2001) ‘Resilience in Children Exposed to Domestic Violence’ in Graham-Bermann, S and Edleson, J (eds) Children Exposed to Marital Violence American Psychology Association, Washington, DC, 185-221 and Mullender, A, Hague, G, Imam, U Malos, E and Regan, L (2002) Children’s Perspectives on Domestic Violence, London: Sage