in the Middle
This document seeks to
explore children's experiences of domestic violence and the effects such
violence may have on their lives, both in the short term and in the long
term. It draws on the conclusions of various studies in this area which
have been carried out in America and the United Kingdom. It aims to
raise awareness of the complexity of this issue and to highlight the
importance of support for both women and children who may be survivors
of domestic violence. The document highlights a number of issues,
The issue of
childhood stress and the causes of stress in all children and
How children and
young people may experience domestic violence;
links between domestic violence and child abuse;
The impact domestic
violence may have on mothering;
domestic violence may have on children and young people's lives;
The legitimacy of
the cycle of violence theory;
Issues to be
considered when assessing the possible impact of domestic violence
on children and young people.
Finally, a list of
recommendations is provided for any agency or individual working with
young people on a regular basis.
We live in a society in
which domestic violence is sadly the norm in many families. Research
(McWilliams and McKiernan, 1993) showed that between 1:4 and 1:10 women
in Northern Ireland have or currently experience violence in the home.
Further research (McWilliams and Spence 1996) revealed that between 1991
and 1994, 21 women were victims of domestic violence related homicide.
Cases of grievous bodily harm, actual bodily harm and threats to kill
which came before the courts totalled 1,031, 979 of which were women and
52 men. In addition to these statistics, official police records show
that within Northern Ireland one woman is seriously assaulted every day
by her male partner.
There are various
definitions of domestic violence. What they all have in common is that
domestic violence is the misuse of power and control by one partner
(usually the male) over another partner. Domestic violence occurs within
close adult relationships and may reveal itself in direct force or
verbal threat to enable the perpetrator to get what they want or to
Awareness of domestic
violence and it’s many forms is generally increasing among agencies
and communities. There is often, however, a tendency to associate
domestic violence with physical violence only. Domestic violence may be
experienced in a plethora of forms including, physical abuse, emotional
torture, verbal abuse and degradation, sexual assault and financial
abuse and exploitation. Often a woman experiencing domestic violence
will suffer a combination of these forms of abuse.
It is important to
remember that whole families suffer from domestic violence. For every
woman experiencing violence in the home there will usually be children
who are also suffering. The experiences of these children are often
Northern Ireland Women’s
Aid statistics for 1989-1997
The above figures show
that children represent the majority of occupants in refuge at any
particular time. If we take an even bigger view and consider all the
women experiencing violence who do not contact Women’s Aid and the
children that they have, we form an even broader picture of how many
children are suffering.
Violence in the family
cannot be kept hidden from the children, they will often witness the
violence, be aware of the tense atmosphere, suffer as victims themselves
or suffer in the aftermath of the violence.
telling me now, what a lot of violence they had seen, and it’s
affected them. I would try and placate him until I got them up to
bed, and then whenever I would come down, he would start, and it’s
only now that they are telling me about sneaking downstairs"
A woman talks about
her violent marriage, McWilliams & McKiernan (1993) p.38
A simple yet effective
way of illustrating the impact violence can have on a family is provided
by Dr Neil Frude, (1997). Dr Frude compares the family to a mobile. Each
member of the family represents a single element of the mobile. Any
action on any part of the mobile will have reverberating effects on
every other single element. The effects will also be fed back to their
original source. Dr Frude refers to this interactive effect as
"Circular Causation" which can also be referred to as a
"Vicious Cycle". Dr Frude also highlights the positive side of
such an effect which is, circles can be broken at any time at any point.
This can be achieved through effective intervention by any agency or
individual. Intervention can be with the woman or the child.
Children & Young
People’s Experience of Domestic Violence
single most important cause of distress in children is serious
disruption or violence in the family ... disruption and violence
is a way of life for a number of families and many children manage
to rise above it"
Campion (1991) p.58
currently exists which clearly outlines the extent of domestic violence
against women and the effects and context on their lives, relatively
little is known about the impact of violence in the home on children. As
with women who suffer from domestic violence, every child’s experience
will be different. Some witness or overhear the violence, many suffer it
alongside their mothers. Children may experience domestic violence in a
number of ways.
Pre Natal Assault
Many children experience
domestic violence before they are born. Often pregnancy is used as a
means of maintaining power. Keeping a woman constantly pregnant is one
deliberate method of exercising control over her life. Children may also
be conceived as a consequence of rape.
Research has shown that
many women experiencing domestic violence suffer violent attacks during
their pregnancy. In their study of domestic violence in Northern
Ireland, McWilliams and McKiernan (1993) found that approximately one
third (19 out of 56 women) studied had been beaten during pregnancy,
many spoke of their experiences:
pregnancy, he (i.e. the third baby) was lying on a nerve on my
leg, and I couldn’t walk, and he used to kick me on the leg, you
know, because he knew it was sore"
This can result in still
birth, miscarriage and damage to the child.
"I buried a
baby because of him" p.35
Forbidding women to
attend doctor's appointments, pre natal treatment etc. can also result
in damaging effects to the child.
Witnessing the Violence
Many children are
physically present during a violent assault on their mother. There has
been a large amount of research conducted which serves to prove this.
Hughes(1992) (cited Holder et al 1994) showed that 90% of children were
in the same or next room when the violence was occurring. Studies by
Leighton (1989) (cited Holder et al 1994) showed that 68% of children
were witnesses of violence in the home.
McKiernan(1993) interviewed many women who spoke about the violence
their children had witnessed
"My wee boy,
he was crammed up against the wall. My husband was getting very,
very abusive, and holding me down on the bed and my wee boy was
screaming and screaming" (1993)
Although many children may not directly
witness the violence, studies have shown that, in the majority of cases,
they are still aware that it is occurring.
One of the most well
known studies conducted in the UK to examine the effects domestic
violence has on children is "The Hidden Victims Study". This
study was carried out by The National Children’s Homes, Action for
Child Policy Unit in 1994. The study consisted of a sample of 108 women
with 246 children who were survivors of domestic violence. This study
showed that 90% of all mothers interviewed said their children were
aware of the violence. Many children witness the aftermath of the
violence by seeing the injury to their mothers or seeing their mothers
distress over the situation. The Hidden Victims Study showed that 99% of
children had seen their mothers crying or upset. More than half of the
women (52%) said that their children had seen the resulting injuries.
witnessing the abuse, many children may be aware of the atmosphere or
sense of fear in the home. (The Hidden Victims Study showed that 69%
were aware of the atmosphere.)
live with fear and anxiety, waiting for the next violent episode.
They feel no safety in their own home yet are too young to seek
out or even want an alternative" Jaffe & Wolfe
The Child as the
When a violent attack is
occurring within the family, for many children an immediate and natural
reaction will be to intervene to protect either their mother or other
siblings. This was highlighted in The Hidden Victims Study, 31% of women
told how their children had tried to protect their mother and 27% had
tried to protect their siblings.
McWilliams and McKiernan
(1993) found similar findings in their study of 56 women. Many recounted
stories of how their children had intervened. One woman spoke about how
her nine year old daughter had saved her life when her partner had
attacked with a bread knife;
"You leave my
mummy alone, don’t you do that, I wouldn’t be here now cause
he would've killed me that night" p.36
Colluding with the
Many children are
encouraged to collude with the violence. This may take many forms:
Colluding in the
overall secrecy, not telling anyone about the situation in the home;
Playing one parent
against the other to get what they want;
Colluding with the
actual abuse, verbally degrading the mother, using abusive language,
physically abusing the mother.
Such collusion serves to
further the abuse of the woman and may have serious consequences on the
Becoming a Weapon of
In many families children
are used as a weapon to further the abuse of the woman. For a woman
experiencing domestic violence, the fear of losing her children is very
real. Such a fear may be compounded by a partner constantly telling a
woman that if she does decide to leave, this will inevitably happen. For
many women this provides enough reason to stay in such a relationship.
Often a woman will be undermined verbally in her role as a mother by the
perpetrator, calling her useless, unfit or uncaring.
Victims of Violence -
Links between Domestic Violence & Child Abuse
Many researchers argue
that there are close links between domestic violence and child abuse and
that, where one exists, the co-existence of the other is highly likely.
Many commentators would argue that witnessing abuse within the home is,
in fact, emotional abuse in that a witness to violence is a victim of
There have been various
studies which have sought to investigate the co-existence of physical
abuse of a woman and physical abuse of children in the same family. Two
of the main studies were carried out in the USA. The first (Bowker 1988,
cited Mullender and Morley, 1994) systematically examined the
relationship between the direct abuse of women and their children. In
this study 70% of women reported that their husband had also physically
abused their children:
· 42% slapped
· 16% hit, kicked
or punched their children;
· 4% thoroughly
beat up their children; and
· 9% used weapons.
It was generally found,
the worse the wife beating the worse the child abuse. This study fell
under criticism because the sample group of woman studied were not
considered representative of the public as a whole.
The Hidden Victims Study
(1994) showed that more than a quarter (27%) of the children involved
had been hit or physically abused by the violent partner.
In 1988 Stark and
Flitchcraft (cited, Mullender and Morley, 1994) initiated a major study
which looked at the issue from a different perspective, the likelihood
of abused children having abused mothers. Reports of all children
registered for suspected abuse were analysed and matched with hospital
medical records of their mothers. In this study 45% of the mothers had a
medical history indicative of domestic violence. The main conclusions
drawn from this study were:
· Where there is
child abuse it is highly likely that the woman is being abused;
· Where there is
domestic violence, child abuse is more likely to be physical;
· Where there is
domestic violence, the father is more likely to be the abuser;
fail to acknowledge the existence of domestic violence at the
same time as they blame women for the abuse of their children.
Stark and Flitchcraft
(1998) cited, Mullender and Morley (1994) argue that domestic
violence is the perfect breeding ground for child abuse and that the
perpetrator of domestic violence is the typical child abuser.
and clinicians would do well to look toward advocacy and
protection of battered mothers as the best available means to
prevent current child abuse as well as child abuse in the
Domestic Violence and the Impact on
relationship can also be affected through domestic violence and this
presents yet another way that children may be involved. The
circumstances in which women find themselves as a direct result of the
abuse they suffer seldom resemble the idealised version of family life
and of motherhood. The effects such violence may have on motherhood can
impact on their feelings and behaviour towards their children as well as
affecting their faith in themselves as mothers and as women. Various
studies in this area have shown that a mother's relationship with her
children can be either strengthened or weakened through the presence of
domestic violence. If a woman has been subjected to violence, the impact
it may have on the relationship with her children can be manifested in
The woman may use
violent or abusive language towards her children as an expression of
her own frustration;
Long term emotional
abuse of a woman or repeated degradation may diminish a woman’s
confidence in her ability to care for her children, she may feel
herself to be a bad or unfit mother;
Domestic abuse may
leave a woman unable to carry out simple day to day household tasks.
The Hidden Victims Study(1994) showed that 76% of mothers felt that
their depression had affected their parenting;
markings may leave a woman embarrassed to go outdoors, to take
children to school or to do the shopping;
Financial abuse may
leave a woman finding it difficult to "make ends meet".
Children may suffer from a lack of food, clothing etc.;
A woman may try her
hardest to protect children from physical abuse and, as a result may
endure more physical injury herself;
A woman may try to
protect her children from the truth about what is going on and as a
result may have no one to share her own experiences with. Children
will also be left confused about the situation, relying on their own
explanations and interpretations of what is happening;
Where children side
with the father, a woman may experience feelings of resentment towards
Children may lack
respect for their mother as a result of the violence. The Hidden
Victims Study (1994) showed that 21% of mothers felt this. Two of
these women found that their sons' disrespect seemed to be in danger
of escalating to violence;
In her own loneliness
and isolation a woman may cling to her children for love and support,
the burden placed on children may be too great to bear;
Where children are
conceived as a consequence of rape it may become a continual reminder
of the woman’s own abuse.
It is important to
remember that the blame for any negative impact on the mother/child
relationship lies solely with the perpetrator of violence. The harsh
reality of domestic violence affects a women's ability to care. The
impact of continual physical attacks, verbal degradation, emotional
torture and social isolation can have upon a women's life should never
be underestimated or minimised. Women in such a situation will try
everything in their power to hold a family together and to maintain
structures and stability. The Hidden Victims Study (1994) highlighted
that women never compromised their children's physical welfare by
Despite this, in their
study of 56 women McWilliams and McKiernan (1993) found that women were
often blamed by professionals for the danger to their children:
said they themselves had been blamed because of the dangers posed
to their children though the violence ... For example several
women in this study lost custody of all or some of their children.
Courts and social workers did not seem to consider the history of
violence to be relevant in the consideration of these men to be
Ideologies of "good
mothers" and women's fears of professionals responses to disclosure
may leave a women afraid to tell about the problems she is experiencing
in the home. Women face a difficult dilemma, whether or not to tell
professionals about the domestic violence while fearing that her
children will be removed, all the time needing support and protection
herself. Often to protect themselves from child services women are
reluctant to seek out support for themselves. These fears may be
compounded by threats made by their partners that their children will be
taken into care or that they will themselves get custody of the
children. As Stark and Flitchcraft state:
"Not only are
the mothers who pose least danger to their children likely to lose
them, but they also lose access to whatever meagre resources
resulted from agency concern"
The most important point
for professionals to bear in mind is that for women to provide effective
protection for their children, they themselves need to be protected and
Effects of Domestic
Violence on Children
Our knowledge on the
effects that domestic violence has on children is, at present, somewhat
limited. To date, the majority of research conducted in this area has
been conducted in America and Canada. The Hidden Victims Study,
conducted in 1994, provides the only major research in the UK.
Being "caught in the
middle" of domestic violence can have adverse effects on a child.
We have already discovered that conflict in the home has been ranked as
one of the top causes of stress in children’s lives. It is important,
however, to remember that every child’s experience of this conflict
will be different and every child will utilise different coping
mechanisms to deal with the situation. Such coping mechanisms are unique
to each child and will, in many ways, determine the outcome of how a
child will react to domestic violence.
The research which has
been conducted in this area has shown that children suffer a wide range
of both physical and emotional effects as a result of domestic violence.
Children’s exposure to violence has also been researched in relation
to the impact it may have on children’s schooling. Hughes(1986) found
that children often had difficulties academically as a result of
violence in the home. Overall effects included school phobia and
difficulties in concentration. McKay (1981) described children as being
aggressive with peers, rebelling against adult instruction and authority
and being unwilling to do schoolwork.
The impact that violence
has on children’s lives may be divided into four main areas which are
Effects on the Child
Effects on the Child’s
A whole range
of feelings including, fear, anger, shame etc.
to change the situation
(towards other or father)
trying to please
towards mother/violent partner
(to either parent)
Effects on the
Child's Relationships with
Long term effects
secretive about family life
Lack of trust
develop healthy relationships
and personal development affected
Lack of self
In their study of 56
women, McWilliams and McKiernan (1993) found that many women talked of
both short term and long term effects they felt the violence had on
"Some of the
children exhibited symptoms such as nightmares only as long as the
violent relationship lasted. For other children the effects were
seen a short time after the family had broken up. But some mothers
told about very long term effects on children, like one young man
who, now in his twenties, still stammers in his father's
Some children may fail to
show any negative signs at all, in fact, some may even show positive
signs such as a sudden improvement in school work . However, we should
never make any assumptions about how children have been affected by
observational reactions to the violence may not tally with their
emotional reactions. It may take some time before children are
able to show any reaction at all, but this should not be taken to
mean that the child has been unaffected by the violence."
cited, McGee (1996)
No symptom or syndrome
inevitably follows abuse. There are no set patterns of how a child who
has experienced violence in the home will behave.
important to remember that some children remain perfectly well
adjusted despite living with abuse and that a majority survive
within non clinical or 'normal' levels of functioning"
Mullender and Morley
A Cycle of Violence?
The cycle of violence
theory is one that has been the subject of much attention and criticism
in recent decades. This theory, which is derived in large from the
social learning theory, is based upon the premise that violence breeds
violence. Supporters of this theory would argue that children learn by
observation and, that when they become adults, children who have been
exposed to violence will repeat the behaviour they have witnessed in the
witnessing children are the most pathetic victims of conjugal
crime because their childhood conditioning will colour their
entire lives. All other input will be processed through the mire
of the first marriage they ever saw and their earliest role models
of husband and wife, father and mother"
cited, Jaffe & Wolfe (1990) p.17
This comment would
suggest that children’s conception of family roles and family life in
general may well be modelled on their own experiences of family life as
A child who witnesses
parental violence in the home may be taught that aggression is:
· an effective way
of controlling people; and
· an effective way
of getting what you want.
In the future this may in
turn lead to:
· perpetration of
· perpetration of
· vulnerability to
victimisation by a marital partner.
The cycle of violence
theory has fallen under severe criticism. A critical examination of this
theory will consider the following:
The theory assumes
that boys will automatically identify strongly with the male in
the family. This does not account for the number of boys who may
side with the mother and, as a result, distance themselves from
violence and reject it’s use in the future.
The theory assumes
also that girls will automatically internalise a sense of
conformity to male dominance. It does not take into consideration
the number of girls who may be judgmental and blaming of their
mothers, and who may, in the future, distance themselves from
conducted, when scrutinised, have been found to be non
representative of the public at large and therefore prone to bias.
Most studies are
retrospective in nature. Any studies of this kind must be treated
with caution as there is a tendency to interpret the past through
the present relying heavily on past troubles to rationalise
Such a theory does
not take into account other influences on children’s lives
outside the family such as peers, schools, youth settings etc.
Such a theory gives
little or no credit to children’s resilience and own coping
McWilliams and McKiernan
(1993) found that several women in their study were concerned that such
a cycle would occur and left relationships because of this.
women found not a tolerance but a rejection of violence by their
male children and the adoption of a protective attitude toward
women. One woman described how her young son refused to fight back
when girls hit him while playing in the street"
The legitimacy of the
cycle of violence theory must be questioned. Although abuse may be
transgenerational, it is by no means inevitable. To assume that it does
would be both naive and simplistic.
Many children will grow
up to believe that violence is wrong and not an appropriate way of
dealing with conflict. It is important to remember that children are
individuals with unique internal resources which enable them to draw
their own conclusions and develop their own interpretations of the world
Assessing the Impact
of Domestic Violence
Most children and young
people can and do recover from adverse effects of domestic violence.
Some find healthy coping mechanisms, some may find it difficult to come
to terms with and will seek unhealthy ways of coping, which may be
exhibited during adolescence in forms such as, fierce independence, anti
authoritarian attitudes, delinquency etc., which may in turn lead to
problems within society as a whole.
Why is it then that
children’s reactions to violence vary so greatly? Why is it that not
all children will necessarily be affected in the long term? Why do some
children recover quicker and more successfully than others?
Such questions are
difficult to answer given our lack of awareness in this field. There is
certainly a need to conduct more research into these areas to enable us
to develop more specific conclusions. There is a need to include
children and young people who are survivors of parental violence in such
research, only then will we be able to generate realistic results.
Failing this, all we have to go on are adult conclusions drawn from
Wolfe et al (1985) (cited
Jaffe & Wolfe, 1990) conducted a study which compared current and
former shelter residents aged 4 to 13 with a control group. Conclusions
drawn from the study showed that although the ex-residents showed higher
signs of social disadvantage, they resembled the control group on
emotional and behavioural measures.
children exposed to wife abuse display elevated symptoms of
maladaptive coping and distress. Although approximately one third
of the boys and one fifth of the girls in shelters were found to
have symptoms falling in the clinical range , a significant
proportion of the remaining children were showing fewer negative
symptoms and even above average strengths in social competence and
The authors conclude:
".. it appears
plausible that children can recover from the impact of parental
conflict and separation , provided that the violence is eliminated
and proper supports and opportunities for recovery are
Jaffe et al (1990) argue
that children’s responses to witnessing their mother being assaulted
by their father will vary according to their sex, age, stage of
development and their role in the family. Other factors may also play a
role such as the extent of the violence, the frequency of the violence,
repeated separations and moves, economic and social disadvantage and
special needs that a child may have independent of the violence.
Garnezy (1983) (cited
Jaffe & Wolfe, 1990) found that the protective factors which enable
children to come to terms with violence in the home fall into 3
attributes of the child;
2. Support within
the family system;
3. Support outside
the family system.
The conclusions drawn
from these authors highlight three main areas which appear to be of
importance when making an assessment of the impact which domestic
violence may have on children. These issues are: the individual
characteristics of the child; the nature and extent of domestic
violence; and the level of support offered to the child. These issues
are illustrated in the following diagram:
ie Domestic Violence
- Nature ie how serious
- Frequency and duration
- Child’s level of involvement
- Relationship to perpetrator
It is only when we begin
to look at these three issues in conjunction can we begin to understand
how a child has suffered, how a child is coping and the level of support
a child needs. It appears that the issue of support is crucial in the
overall process of empowering children to come to terms with their own
situation. Support may take many forms and may be offered by various
individuals and agencies working with women and children on a regular
There is a definite need
for all services to provide effective support interventions for women
experiencing domestic violence. Making women safe has often been
highlighted as the most effective way of supporting children. As Dr Liz
Kelly points out:
and yet key principle from which we can begin is that woman
protection is frequently the most effective form of child
Holder et al (1994)
Two studies, Hersham and
Rosenbaum, (1985) and Wolfe et al (1985) suggested that children were
reacting more to the stress their mothers were under than to the
analysis revealed the stress placed on their mothers as
particularly damaging for the children, as compared to the
violence alone. Supporting a woman to leave or to free herself of
the abuse can therefore be expected to give her children greater
Wolfe et al (1985)
cited Mullender & Morely (1994) p.25
In addition to the
effective provision of support services to women, it is also essential
the effective support and opportunities to recover are provided for
children affected by domestic violence.
the nature of things need advice, support and encouragement of
adults if they are to survive and grow and make the most of their
Campion (1991) p.1
individuals coming into contact with women and children need to be aware
of signs and symptoms of domestic violence. Policies and procedures need
to be developed and put in place to ensure that women and children are
receiving the support and information they need either to stay and
survive in the situation or to leave.
Recognition that men’s
abuse of women causes problems for children is beginning to spread
throughout Northern Ireland. What little knowledge we have in this area
needs to be developed through effective research, taking young people's
perspectives into consideration.
with children and young people must realise that some of them may be
experiencing violence in the home. Provision of support is essential for
all survivors of domestic violence. Children need supportive adults who
will listen to them and help them come to terms with their own
situation. For adults to be supportive they need to understand how
children are affected and develop positive responses in working with
them. There is a definite need for organisations working with children
and young people to, through training, develop their knowledge and
awareness in this area, so that they can be effective in their practice
and response to women, children and young people.
Policy makers must be
aware of the impact parental violence has on children and must implement
policies, practices and procedures which have, at the centre, the
welfare of the child.
The need to raise the
issue of domestic violence with young people is extremely high.
Attention needs to be directed towards the use of education packages
such as Northern Ireland Women’s Aid Federation’s "NO
FEAR" pack in schools and youth settings. Such approaches represent
both a pro active and a preventive method of tackling domestic violence.
It is only through such an approach can we raise awareness of issues
such as healthy relationships, conflict management and gender roles
among young people. We need to ensure that all young people are provided
with the opportunity to openly discuss such issues. It is only when this
occurs that we will see significant change.
Domestic violence is
wrong, it is a crime. It is not enough to realise this, there is a need
for children and young people to hear this message loud and clear!
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Children, Whiting & Birch: London.
Frude, N (1997) The
Impact of Violence on Children, Parent’s Advice Conference,
Holder, R et al (1994)
Suffering in Silence? Children and Young People who witness
Domestic Violence, Hammersmith and Fulham, Domestic Violence
Jaffe et al (1990) Children
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McGee, C (1996) Children's
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McWilliams, M &
McKiernan, 5, (1993) Bringing it out in the Open, HMSO:
McWilliams, M &
Spence, L (1996) Taking Domestic Violence Seriously, Issues for the
Civil and Criminal Justice System, The Stationary Office: Belfast.
Morley, R (1994) Children Living with Domestic Violence - Putting
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