How are children and young people exposed to domestic abuse?

Children and young people can witness domestic abuse in a variety of ways.


Some examples of the ways in which children are exposed to domestic abuse:

  • They may be in the same room and may even get caught in the middle of an incident in an effort to make the abuse stop.
  • They may be in the room next door and hear the abuse or see their mother's or father's physical injuries following an incident of abuse.
  • They may be forced to stay in one room or may not be allowed to play.
  • They may be forced to witness sexual abuse or they may be forced to take part in verbally abusing the victim.

All children witnessing domestic abuse are being emotionally abused.

From 31 January 2005, Section 120 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 came into force, which extends the legal definition of harming children to include harm suffered by seeing or hearing ill treatment of others, especially in the home (domestic abuse).

Effects of domestic abuse on children and young people

The majority of children and young people witness the abuse that is occurring and in about half of all domestic abuse situations, they are also being directly abused themselves.

A child or young person can experience both short and long term cognitive, behavioural and emotional effects. Each child and young person will respond differently to trauma and some may be more resilient and not exhibit any negative effects.

A child or young person's responses to the trauma of witnessing domestic abuse may vary according to a multitude of factors including, but not limited to, age, race, sex and stage of development. It is equally important to remember that the common effects experienced by a child or young person can also be caused by something other than witnessing domestic abuse and therefore a thorough assessment of a child or young person's situation is vital to ensure appropriate treatment.

Children and young people are individuals and may respond to witnessing abuse in different ways. These are some of the effects described in a briefing by the Royal College of Psychiatrists (2004):

  • They may become anxious or depressed
  • They may have difficulty sleeping
  • They have nightmares or flashbacks
  • They can be easily startled
  • They may complain of physical symptoms such as tummy aches
  • They may start to wet their bed
  • They may have temper tantrums
  • They may behave as though they are much younger
  • They may have problems with school
  • They may become aggressive or they may internalise their distress and withdraw from other people
  • They may have a lowered sense of self-worth
  • Older children may begin to play truant or start to use alcohol or drugs
  • They may begin to self-harm by taking overdoses or cutting themselves
  • They may have an eating disorder
  • Children may also feel angry, guilty, insecure, alone, frightened, powerless or confused. They may have ambivalent feelings towards the abuser and the non-abusing parent.