Effects of domestic violence on children, result from witnessing domestic violence in a home where one of their parents are abusing the other parent, plays a tremendous role on the well-being and developmental growth of children witnessing the violence. In 2009 in the Philippines, it was estimated that as many as 7 to 14 million children were exposed to domestic violence with about 3.3 million children exposed to domestic violence in their homes every year.

Children who witness domestic violence in the home often believe that they are to blame, live in a constant state of fear and are 15 times more likely to be victims of child abuse. Close observation during an interaction can alert providers to the need for further investigation and intervention, such as dysfunctions in the physical, behavioral, emotional, and social areas of life, and can aid in early intervention and assistance for child victims.

A continuum of behaviour ranging from verbal abuse, physical, and sexual assault, to rape and even homicide. The vast majority of such violence, and the most severe and chronic incidents, are perpetrated by men against women and their children.

(Department of Health [DoH] 2000)

In most cases the violence is against women by their partners or spouseand affects children belonging to one or both of them. Children canbecome victims of domestic violence – either through being directlytargeted or witnessing scenes of domestic violence between parents andtheir partners. At least 750,000 children a year witness violencewithin the home, and nearly three quarters of children on childprotection registers live in households where domestic violenceoccurs. (Dept of Health, 2003).

Abuse and violence may be physical, emotional, psychological,financial or sexual, and may be constant or spasmodic. Yet domesticviolence is experienced by individuals from every class, race, religionand culture the world over (British Medical Association [BMA] 1999).

While severe cases of domestic violence can often lead to womenbeing hospitalised, others remain undetectable to the public eye,leaving women who live in constant fear of their partner or spouse,trying to avoid degradation. A study by Mayhew found thatpsychological and emotional abuse might be constant whilst the physicalviolence is intermittent (Mayhew et al 1996). For the child or youngperson this becomes a way of life – one without stability or securityand this can lead to behavioural problems and even crime.

The focus of this essay is on the impact of domestic violence onthe lives of children and young people. Research took place in theHammersmith and Fulham area of London. The main body of research issecondary, from journals, books, and internet sources. The primaryresearch is in the form of 2 sets of questionnaires handed out to 40people. The first questionnaire uses a design based on a survey doneby Doctors from the University of Arizona, which has already proven tobe successful and reliable. The questionnaire consists of fourquestions:

1. Have you ever been in a relationship with someone who has hit you,kicked you, slapped you, punched you, or threatened to hurt you?


3. When you were pregnant did anyone ever physically hurt you?

4. Are you in a relationship with someone who yells at you, calls you names, or puts you down? (Wahl et al 2004: 25).

The questionnaire was carried out on a random sample of the public. 20were handed to people outside Fulham Broadway tube station during rushhour. People were only given the form if they said they had children,and were asked to fill it in on their way home from work or when theygot back, and were given an sae. This method was chosen for reasons ofpersonal safety – as opposed to going round door to door.

If the respondent answered yes to all questions then they were saidto have suffered a prolonged period of domestic violence. In order toinvestigate the effects of domestic violence on adolescents aquestionnaire was devised for teenagers (see Appendix 1) and 20 werehanded out at a youth centre in Hammersmith to be filled outanonymously. The forms were then collected at the end of the day.

The second section of primary research was designed to be morespecific. It was decided to approach an association specifically setupfor women who have suffered domestic violence, which is activelyinvolved in policy work in the UK. The chairwoman was approached andasked whether she could arrange for a sample – preferably those withfamily in a black community – who would consider completing aquestionnaire for a research study on domestic violence and its effectson young people and children. The chairwoman gave the researcher fournames and email addresses of people who were willing to be contacted.However, the respondents and the association were to remain anonymousfor reasons of confidentiality and security. The respondents usedpseudonyms for their responses.

As the sample was small, yet relevant, it was decided to use a morelengthy questionnaire, and interview the four subjects in more depthabout their experience. Aside from the emotional effects, questionswere designed to explore how domestic violence can be detrimental tolearning and health. (see Appendix 2).

Organisations and Government Policy

There are many voluntaryorganisations such as Shelter, which provide counselling and places ofrefuge for women and children suffering domestic violence. Beneath arelisted other services in the Hammersmith and Fulham area:

  • Refuge provides a Freephone 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline
  • Community efforts, such as the &lsquoPeace Week.’
  • The protection from Harassment Act 1997
  • Prosecutions from the Criminal Justice Act 1998 where the victim need not appear in court, but her statement used instead.
  • Developing police strategy for collecting evidence at the scene (Home Office 2000).

What happens to children in cases of Domestic Violence?

The aftermath of domestic problems can be as damaging as the incidentsor episodes themselves. Children can be present during an arrest of aparent, witness a parent breaking restraining orders and theirreactions to court decisions. In these situations children can be usedas pawns or in worst cases even be taken as hostages. (Devoe andSmith, 2002 ). In a qualitative study on the effects of domesticviolence on children, McGee’s (2000) study, along with other research,revealed that:

  • Children do not have to experience physical abuse to experience long-term negative effects of living where extreme controlling behaviour and abuse are the norm.
  • In order to protect themselves, children may take the father’s side in an argument, and may themselves be abusive to their mother (Kelly 1996).
  • Children regularly experience a sense of total powerlessness, wishing they could assist their mother, which may produce harm to their long-term emotional wellbeing.
  • This may later cause revenge fantasies, but at the time often leads them to have an overpowering need to stay in the room. (Shipway 2004: 116).
  • It is not unusual for the child or young person to blame themselves for what is happening to their mother, particularly as the partner may have used their behaviour as a reason for losing his temper. (Ibid).
  • Young people sometimes fear social services will remove them from the home if it is known violence and abuse exists.

Gaudoin (2001:27) provided evidence confirming that two-thirds of theresidents in refuges are children. However, this does not account forthe hundreds who are afraid to report violence. The threat of leavingtheir family home, however unstable, is often not well received bychildren, and many would rather put up with domestic violence thanremove themselves from it.

Domestic Violence in the Black community

Domestic violence in the black community has been recognised as beingless likely to be reported mainly because women and young people do notwish to threaten the stability of their position within theircommunity. Women from African Caribbean communities are less likely toreport their experiences and therefore they experience prolonged abuseover a long, or sometimes indeterminate, time frame. One of thecritical debates concerning domestic violence is the idea of &lsquogettingused’ to a way of being treated and thus for it to become the normwithin family life. An article written by a survivor of domesticviolence said of her early years in Jamaica: &lsquoin my experience it wascommonplace to hear of or even witness women/men being beaten by theirspouses or partners in public view.’ (Unknown author. She comments ofviolence in the UK, saying that &lsquoparticularly within the Blackcommunity, the fighting may not overspill onto the streets but it doesoccur, behind closed doors.’

Black communities in London are well established and people livingwithin them rely on the social structure of their area. The idea ofleaving the area to live in a refuge where they might not understandEnglish speaking people so well is an intimidating prospect for many.Thus, some women who do not speak English might delay seeking help,finding the language a barrier between them and British speakingorganisations. Interpreters can be used, but involving a third partyin a woman’s private life can be an off-putting idea. Furthermore,religious or cultural beliefs might forbid divorce, and religiouscommunity leaders mostly being men, only some speak out about domesticviolence.

In the case of migrant women and children who suffer domestic abusethere often is the threat of not being able to stay in the UK if theyseparate from their partner. An even greater threat is that thepartner might abduct the children and take them abroad. (GreenwichMulti-Agency Domestic Violence Forum. 2003).

One of the most powerful psychological effects of domestic violence,physical or verbal, is the victim’s distorted perspective of theirabuser. Often women will make excuses for the person who attacks themblaming it on themselves or on drink or drugs or other stresses withintheir relationship. This comes with an inability to prioritise theirpersonal safety and wellbeing, and that of their children, believingthat the emotional attachment between the family members might beenough to overcome the presence of violence.

Consequently, the effects of the mother’s decision to remain within theabusive relationship means that the child remains continually at riskfrom psychological and physical hurt. The effects of exposure toviolence in the home are extensive and not always immediately evident.For the individual exposure to domestic violence can precipitatepersonality disorders, addictive disorders, substance abuse, and evenphysical disorders. And as studies have shown, many violentindividuals have themselves been victims of domestic violence andabuse, unable to break out of the cycle. Children and adolescents withviolent parent(s) are without the presence of a mentor on which tomodel their behaviour. This can lead to further social problems suchas an inability to integrate with peers. A young person who hasexperienced the insecurity of a violent home life might seek securityin other forms – such as substance abuse, and gangs and gang violence.


The Home Office survey 2004 reported on a questionnaire used by the2001 British Crime Survey. It asked a nationally representative sampleof 22,463 women and men aged between 16 and 59 whether they had beensubject to domestic violence during their lifetime and during thepreceding year. For relevance to this essay the following graphs wereselected from the survey:

Source: Home Office Survey 2004: 12.

The survey surmised that since the age of 16 45% of women and 26%of men were subject to domestic violence at least once in theirlifetime. (Home Office 2004: 8). Of these 18.6% were subject toforce, meaning pushing, shoving, or physical harm.

The British Crime Survey estimated that 13% of women and 9% of menhad been subject to domestic violence in the 12 months prior tointerview. (p.8). Furthermore, 12.9 million incidents of domesticviolence acts had occurred against women in that year.

Violence against children

In 90% of cases of domestic violence children are in the same room or the next room.(Hughes 1998)

In 40% – 60% of cases of domestic violence child abuse is also occurring ( Stark &amp Flitcraft 1998)

The NCH study found 75% of mothers said their children hadwitnessed domestic violence, 33% had seen their mothers beaten up, 10%had witnessed sexual violence (NCH, 1994).


Immediate effects of Domestic Violence on Children and Young People

A report by the Department of Health concluded that:

For many women and their families the effects of domestic violence willbe catastrophic, the damage to their physical and psychological wellbeing may be deeply damaging, and on occasions fatal.

(Department of Health [DoH] 2000: 12)

Victimisation by a parent of a child or young person can lead to theindividual becoming so controlled and inhibited that they are unable tomake even the simplest decision or act without permission, respondingwith complete obedience to every order given and every rule imposed.Abuse can encumber every part of their life, leading in cases tosuicide seeming like the only escape. Some people express theirself-disgust and powerlessness through alcohol or drug abuse, orself-mutilation, exhibiting signs of severe depression and completedependency on the abuser.(Shipway 2004: 1).

Because of the variety of forms which domestic violence can take itis difficult for research to cover all areas. For example, there canbe negative effects from being an observer. Research by Fantuzzo andMohr noted this and thus instead of using the term &lsquovictim’ used&lsquoexposure.’ This was used in the context of the experience of watchingor hearing domestic violence being directly involved calling policeand the experience of the aftermath of scenes which might includeseeing injuries or bruising on a parent and observing maternaldepression. (Fantuzzo and Mohr 1999: 22).

Work by Hester et al found that children’s responses differ amongmembers of the same family who are witnessing or experiencing the sameabuse. They also said that it is hard to discern the impacts of livingwith domestic violence on children, because some of the consequentbehaviours also occur in children experiencing other forms of abuse andneglect. (Hester et al. 2000:44)

The following is a list of negative effects taken from Shipway 2004: 117):

  • Secrecy
  • Confusion
  • Fear
  • Mistrustful
  • Blaming themselves
  • Nightmares

In addition Hester et al. (2000:44) found that whilst some childrenhave poor social skills others attain a high level of social skillsdevelopment with an ability to negotiate difficult situations. Achild’s ability to cope with abuse should never be underestimatedneither should the child’s attachment to the abusive parent which, forsome, may continue to be strong. (Ibid).

Children’s responses to witnessing domestic violence will depend onage, race, class, sex, stage of development, and the support of others.(Women’s Aid). Children may feel angry at their mother or father fornot protecting them, as well as blaming them for causing the violence.Others may be so concerned about their mother’s distress that they keepprivate their own grief (Saunders, 1995. From Women’s Aid).

Long Term effects

Research by Fantuzzo and Mohr concluded that children who live inviolent households are at greater risk of being maladjusted. (Fantuzzoand Mohr 1999: 22.) Some of these problems include:

Behaviour Modelling

In very young children through to adolescent age, behaviour is oftenmodelled on people who the individual spends significant time with.Piaget in his 1972 publication noted that children’s play behaviourinvolves modelling on those around them, and eventually to reproducingthat behaviour at any given time or place .

As children grow up the parent figure becomes a role-model and ifan abusive relationship exists then this trust is taken away. In astudy conducted by American researchers on aggression and violence inadolescent boys, 15 interviewees were asked questions which sought toidentify areas for improvement concerning intervention and prevention.Participants disclosed that their aggressive responses to provocationwere frequently modelled on responses that they had seen exhibited byothers, particularly those observed among immediate and extended familymembers. For example, a respondent called Dan said the following abouthis father:

He gets mad too quickly…. He’ll get aggravated and he’ll justexplode and

that’s when the fights start…. We’ll argue and then I’ll get madand tell

him some stuff and then he’ll get mad and just start yelling andthen like

one of us will go after the other, and then we’re fighting so mymother

will try to break it up or call the police. (Ballou et al 2002: 221).

Not all interviewees connected their behaviour with their families,however, there were many family interactions which involved aggressionand domestic violence. It is perhaps the impact of what childrenwitness that remains with them and encourages them to learn negativebehavioural responses more quickly. As Brian explained, &quotWhen I wasyounger, I didn’t have a very organized family at all, so I lookedtowards the people on the streets. That’s when it gets you in trouble.&quot

Social Integration

The abused child’s unstable, often dangerous, home environment islikely to limit the child’s development of social skills,self-confidence, and experience of positive interactions (Herrenkohl etal., 1995). Taken from Cooper 1999: 10). Children who grow up in aviolent, unpredictable family have a `world view’ in which potentialthreat is constantly present. The child’s ability to play and integratewith others is severely impaired as they are, if you like, watchingtheir back in case of attack.

Play is an important medium of self-expression for the young child,especially during the preschool years when language is stilldeveloping. It is the way in which children explore the world aroundthem and learn to recognise and understand objects and people. Becauseplay is sensitive to environmental conditions, the child’s physical andsocial environment will either support or limit his or her playopportunities. Unfortunately, when a child is exposed to a chronicallyviolent, abusive, or neglectful home environment, his or heropportunities for play development and play experiences are severelydisrupted. (Cooper 1999:10).

The physically abused or neglected child is more likely to showdelayed language, cognitive, and motor development, and as aconsequence, delayed play skills (Ibid). Cooper suggests that thepreschool child will internalise the experience of domestic violence,and may view himself or herself as the cause. As a result, thepreschool child may act in destructive ways, such as deliberatelydestroying other children’s games or toys, in order to attract negativeattention. (Ibid).

A 1989 study by Fagot et al found physically abused preschoolchildren’s free play with peers to be more disruptive, aggressive, andantisocial than the play of other, non-abused children. (Ibid).Fantuzzo found that aggressive play behaviour, and a lack of empathywith fellow children, is likely to further isolate and prevent theabused child from learning appropriate social skills (Davis &ampFantuzzo, 1989: 227-248).


Children living in a dysfunctional family unit where violence occurswill often experience a lack of structure and organisation to theirdaily lives. The study by Ballou et al found that the boys &lsquofelt safe’in the institution as they had a chance to lead &lsquoorderly, less chaoticlives than the ones they experienced in their homes and on thestreets.’ (Ballou et al 2002: 17).

Every child will cope with exposure to domestic violence in their ownunique way. Indeed, many children might at first not appear to havebeen adversely affected. It is only later, or in certain situationsthat their inner emotional state might be revealed.

Indeed, although there is a varying number of possible negative healthand social outcomes for children who have lived in an abusive home, notall children manifest these characteristics in their later life. Theyoung mind can be resilient and adaptable:

It is important to remember that some children remain perfectly welladjusted despite living with abuse and that a majority survive withinnon clinical or ‘normal’ levels of functioning. (Mullender and Morley1994:4)

Results from Primary Research

Of the 20 questionnaires handed out to a random sample of respondents,who were asked only to fill out and return the form if they hadchildren. 8 were returned. The results are set out below:

1. Have you ever been in a relationship with someone who has hit you,kicked you, slapped you, punched you, or threatened to hurt you?


3. When you were pregnant did anyone ever physically hurt you?

4. Are you in a relationship with someone who yells at you, calls you names, or puts you down?

  • 7 out of 8 women said they had been in a relationship where they were threatened or hurt
  • 3 out of 8 women said they were currently in a violent relationship
  • 6 women who said they had been abused while pregnant, which implies that their children could have been born into a domestically violent household.
  • 6 out of 8 women said they were in an emotionally abusive relationship

These statistics for the Fulham area are quite high. Nearly half ofrespondents said they had experienced prolonged domestic abuse. Itwould be useful to conduct a further study on another random sample tosee if the two sets of results would correlate. Because under half thesample returned the questionnaires it cannot be said to be arepresentative sample of the Fulham area. Nonetheless the findings dogive a surprising insight into the lives of black women in London,showing that abuse, in any form, is a regular occurrence in somepeople’s lives. Furthermore, because these respondents had children itis likely that their children have witnessed domestic violence. Futureresearch might look into establishing a comparison study on 20 womenwho do not have children in an attempt to see whether more cases ofabuse occur within relationships where children are present.