Family or domestic violence or abuse can be physical, emotional, psychological, financial or sexual. It can include any situation where someone is forced to alter their behaviour due to fear of their partner’s reaction.
Research tells us that men are more likely than women to be the perpetrators of family violence. Incidents of domestic violence are rarely a one-off and often become more frequent and severe over time. Domestic violence can affect anyone, regardless of age, social background, gender, religion, sexuality or ethnicity.
Impact on children
Being in a household where there is family violence is distressing and scary for children. Children may hear violent or controlling arguments; they may witness violence directly; they may be told to hide and can feel powerless to protect a carer. They are likely to be well aware of their parent’s distress and injuries after an incident. They may also get hurt. We know that there is a higher likelihood that children will experience abuse themselves in households characterised by family violence.
There are links between domestic violence, low self-worth and later risk of child exploitation for both girls and boys. Victims of family violence often lack self-worth and can be at greater risk of depression, anxiety and trauma. This can sometimes interfere with their ability to parent their child sensitively and can lead to harsher parenting which, in turn, can further undermine a child’s wellbeing.
Family violence is an important cause of long-term problems for children’s mental health and physical health. Effects can be traumatising and long lasting and can have an impact on:
- Children’s understanding of normal or acceptable relationships with others and their ability to form relationships in school and beyond.
- A child’s emotional wellbeing: increased anxiety, fear and stress levels.
- Their ability to learn.
- Their view of the family and the broader community and society.
- Levels of aggressive and anti-social behaviour, which can persist into adolescence and adulthood.
Family violence is a key safeguarding concern.
Find out more about family violence and its impact on children
MindEd is a free educational e-learning resource for professionals on children and young people’s mental health. Resources can be used for individual professional training as well as prompting wider staff discussion. These sessions aim to help staff better understand family violence and its impact on children:
Spotting the signs
The key for school staff is to be alert to extreme behaviour or changes in a child’s behaviour. Some common indicators may include:
- Becoming aggressive or becoming a bully.
- Becoming quieter or withdrawn, which risks them going unnoticed.
- Not doing well at school; may even regress.
- May be defiant and/or disobedient.
- Lagging behind when it’s time to go home.
- Arriving at school early/leaving late.
- Signs of anxiety or depression.
- Difficulty sleeping.
- Finding loud noises or loud voices unusually disturbing.
Protective factors: what schools can do
Not every child exposed to family violence will be affected in a negative way. Children will respond differently, depending on many factors including their age, sex and stage of development. How they react will also be influenced by the support they receive and their ability to be resilient and move forward after such adversities.
- Many whole-school programmes and targeted group work are proven to help build children’s self-esteem and their social and emotional skills. These programmes can also help promote caring, empathetic, respectful and equal relationships with peers and others.
- Intervention should start early before attitudes begin to harden: some teaching resources also specifically seek to reduce the likelihood of children becoming victims or perpetrators of family violence, through challenging stereotypes and unhealthy gender power dynamics, helping them form healthy relationships and resolve conflict. These themes should be embedded in the whole-school ethos and should be picked up in broader cross-curriculum activities.
- Work on anti-bullying can usefully include a focus for children on effective problem-solving and resolving disagreements.
- An environment where staff demonstrate effective conflict management, and use restorative approaches when conflict arises, can help children avoid repeating family patterns of behaviour. See, for example, this case study on restorative approaches in a primary school.
- Positive relationships in the classroom/school that are built on trust, safety and security, promote pupil wellbeing and help children talk about worries that might be affecting them.
- Schools can be important places to help parents get the support they need to make changes, so that they, in turn, can help their children. Staff should try and engage with parents/carers whenever they can and be a potential source of help, signposting them to appropriate support. We also have advice about how to open up a conversation with a parent or carer.
- Some children will need a little extra help, either through school pastoral care/counselling support or through referral to the school nurse, national helplines or community-based support (e.g early help services, local voluntary sector support or specialist CAMHS).
If pupils are known to be experiencing family violence:
- Talk to your designated safeguarding lead (DSL).
- Work in partnership with the non-abusing parent to support the child and encourage the parent to seek help too.
- Be aware of practicalities:
- Homework clubs can give children affected by domestic violence a safe place to do their work.
- Know what support there is locally for parents/carers affected by domestic abuse.
- A buddy system in school can help induct new pupils who have moved after being affected by domestic violence.
- Be aware of managing risk – don’t send communications home that may put parents and families at risk.
The following case study from Place2Be shows how difficult it can be to access help but how the awareness of teachers and the support of professionals can have positive outcomes for both the parent and child. Names and some details have been changed to protect identities.
‘Tommy had been struggling at school for some time with concentration and behaviour. Some of his drawings were also concerning his teacher. She was worried about his wellbeing and his progress in school. She also noticed that his mum was looking ‘out of sorts’ when she saw her at the school gate. She asked to see Tommy’s mum who said she was worried about him too and that she wanted to help him but didn’t know how. She said that there had recently been ‘a lot of stress’ in the family – but didn’t elaborate. A Place2Be parent counsellor regularly attended the school so Tommy’s teacher suggested that seeing a counsellor might help Tommy’s mum get through her stressful situation. With a little persuasion, she agreed. Tommy’s mum told the counsellor that she was worried about talking to someone else because she was always frightened that Tommy might be taken away – but she also wanted to do the best for her child. This motivated her to attend sessions with the counsellor. She said it was the best thing she could have done. Over a number of sessions she revealed that she had been the victim of violence from her partner and talked through her worries about this affecting the children. She then made the decision to separate from her partner, her confidence increased, her mental health improved, she secured employment and Tommy began to settle again in school’.
Concerned about a child?
If you are worried that a child is at risk, involve your designated safeguarding lead (DSL) as a priority. They will contact the parents/carers and other services as necessary. If the child is at immediate risk, please ensure that they are taken, urgently, to their GP or A&E – either by their parents/carers or, where parental contact is not possible, by the school DSLFind out more