Domestic Abuse: How does it Affect Children?

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The effects of domestic abuse on both children and adults can last a lifetime. Until this year, witnessing domestic abuse wasn’t legally considered child abuse. The newly revised Domestic Abuse Act 2021 now includes children as victims of domestic abuse when it’s happening in their household.

According to the national charity Women’s Aid, 1 in 7 children and young people under the age of 18 will have lived with domestic abuse at some point in their childhood. No child or adult should feel unsafe in their home and we encourage anyone who is worried about their safety to contact the police straight away.

What is Domestic Abuse?

Domestic abuse is when an abuser uses threats, violence and bullying behaviour to control and harm their partner. It can happen to both men and women and can take many different forms. For example:

  • Kicking, hitting or punching
  • Sexual abuse and rape
  • Controlling their finances or behaviour e.g. telling them what to wear
  • Stopping them leaving the house
  • Reading private emails and text messages
  • Threatening to harm or kill them or someone they care about

Domestic abuse doesn’t always happen in the home either – it can happen over the phone, social media sites, outside the home, and even after a relationship has ended.

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Impact of Domestic Abuse on Children

Witnessing domestic abuse can cause cognitive, behaviour and emotional effects on children which can be short term or long term. Symptoms can include:

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Nightmares and flashbacks
  • Physical symptoms such as stomach pains and bed wetting
  • Problems at school
  • Aggression
  • Lowered self-worth
  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Self-harming
  • Eating disorders

Research by the University of New Hampshire has also found that witnessing a parent abusing a sibling can be as traumatising as watching a parent hurt another parent. The study found that is can lead to depression, anxiety and anger. 

Every child’s situation will be different and sometimes the symptoms of domestic abuse won’t always surface in childhood.  

One celebrity who has recently opened up about the childhood abuse he suffered is ex-footballer, Ian Wright.

“It made me feel so helpless”

In the new BBC documentary, Home Truths, Ian talks about watching his mother being physically abused by his stepfather, as well as being abused by him himself. He describes how he’d get excited hearing the Match of the Day theme tune but his stepdad would “make me turn away from the TV and face the wall - just because he could. It was torture. It was just so unnecessary and cruel. If you turned round to look he would shout you down.”

Following on from her own abuse, Ian’s mother then turned on Ian and would regularly beat him. But it was the things she said to him that really hurt. He recalls a particular time when he was 8 years old and she told him “I wish I’d terminated you.”

It’s taken over 50 years for Ian to open up about his childhood abuse and he’s still dealing with the effects all these years later. His trauma often manifested itself in the form of anger during his career as a footballer.   

  • "I've only recently started talking about this. When you've had a childhood like I have, how does that affect you when you get older, the memories (are) still with you. I tried to explain, I have a nice family now, everything is perfect now, but sometimes I feel sad. I don't know why I continue to get dragged back to very negative things. I remember my step-dad hitting my mum, I was so scared of what he'd do. We lived in constant fear."

    Ian Wright


While Ian never got therapy or talked about his childhood abuse, he still went on to have a successful career and a loving family, including 8 children of his own.

The documentary shows Ian talking to men who witnessed domestic abuse in their childhood who then went on to become abusers in adulthood. This shows a further devastating and dangerous impact that domestic abuse can have on child victims in the future, but it’s important to remember that not all children who experience domestic abuse will go on to become abusers in adulthood.

Support from Simpson Millar

If you’re suffering from domestic abuse, or you’re a survivor of child abuse and you’d like advice, get in touch with our Abuse Solicitors for free, confidential advice. We can refer you to specialist support services tailored to your individual needs.

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