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Children and domestic abuse

How will my children be affected by the abuse?

If you have children, you have probably tried to shield them from the domestic abuse as much as you possibly can. Perhaps you are hoping they do not know it is happening. However, in the majority of families where there are children, and where abuse is being perpetrated, the children will be aware of this, and will often hear it or see it going on. In some cases, the children themselves will suffer physical or sexual abuse from the same perpetrator.

Children can witness domestic abuse in a variety of ways. For example, they may be in the same room and may get caught in the middle of an incident, perhaps in an effort to make the violence stop; they may be in another room but be able to hear the abuse or see their mother's physical injuries following an incident of violence; or they may be forced to take part in verbally abusing the victim. Children are completely dependent on the adults around them, and if they do not feel safe in their own homes, this can have many negative physical and emotional effects. All children witnessing domestic abuse are being emotionally abused, and this is now recognised as 'significant harm' in recent legislation.

Children will react in different ways to being brought up in a home with a violent person. Age, race, sex, culture, stage of development, and individual personality will all have an effect on a child's responses. Most children, however, will be affected in some way by tension or by witnessing arguments, distressing behaviour or assaults - even if they do not always show this. They may feel that they are to blame, or - like you - they may feel angry, guilty, insecure, alone, frightened, powerless, or confused. They may have ambivalent feelings, both towards the abuser, and towards the non-abusing parent.

These are some of the effects of domestic abuse on children:

• They may become anxious or depressed.

• They may have difficulty sleeping.

• They may have nightmares or flashbacks.

• 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 than they are.

• They may have problems at school, or may start truanting.

• They may become aggressive.

• They may internalise their distress and withdraw from other people.

• They may have a lowered sense of self-worth.

• Older children may start to use alcohol or drugs.

• They may begin to self-harm by taking overdoses or cutting themselves.

• They may develop an eating disorder.

Abuse may also interfere with your children's social relationships: they may feel unable to invite friends round (or may be prevented from doing so by the abuser) out of shame, fear, or concern about what their friends may see. They may feel guilty, and think the abuse is their fault, or that they ought to be able to stop it in some way. There can be an impact on school attendance and achievement: some children will stay home in an attempt to protect their mother, or because they are frightened what may happen if they go out. Worry, disturbed sleep and lack of concentration can all affect school work.

You may feel that you will be blamed for failing as a parent, or for asking for help, and you may worry that your children will be taken away from you if you report the abuse. But it is acting responsibly to seek help for yourself and your children, and you are never to blame for someone else's abuse. It is important that you - the non-abusing parent - are supported so that in turn you can support your children and ensure that they are safe, and that the effects of witnessing (and perhaps directly experiencing) the violence are addressed.

How you can help your children

Some mothers and children use silence or denial to try to cope with the abuse. But most children appreciate an opportunity to acknowledge the violence and to talk about what they are feeling. Do talk to your children - and listen to them. Try to be honest about the situation, without frightening them. Reassure them that the violence is not their fault and that they are not responsible for adult behaviour. Explain to them that violence is wrong and that it does not solve problems. Remember, your children will naturally trust you - try not to break that trust by directly lying to them.

Encourage your children to talk about their wishes and feelings. You could do this perhaps by doing an activity together, or encouraging them to draw or write about what is happening and how they feel about it. Your child's teacher may be able to help you with this. Sometimes children will wait until they feel safe and are no longer in the violent environment before they start to talk about their feelings. You may believe it is best for your children if you try to keep the family together in order to provide the security of a home and father - despite the ongoing fear, and the emotional and physical abuse. However, children will feel more secure with one parent in a stable environment than with two parents when the environment is unstable and abusive.