Protecting children from domestic abuse

Last updated: 29 Jul 2021

Domestic abuse is any type of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between people who are, or who have been in a relationship, regardless of gender or sexuality. It can also happen between adults who are related to one another and can include physical, sexual, psychological, emotional or financial abuse.

Each UK nation has its own definition of domestic abuse for professionals who are working to prevent domestic abuse and protect those who have experienced it (Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, 2016; Home Office, 2013; Police Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, 2019; Welsh Government, 2019).

Domestic abuse can include:

  • sexual abuse and rape (including within a relationship)
  • punching, kicking, cutting, hitting with an object
  • withholding money or preventing someone from earning money
  • taking control over aspects of someone's everyday life, which can include where they go and what they wear
  • not letting someone leave the house
  • reading emails, text messages or letters
  • threatening to kill or harm them, a partner, another family member or pet.

Witnessing and experiencing domestic abuse

Domestic abuse always has an impact on children. Being exposed to domestic abuse in childhood is child abuse.

Children may experience domestic abuse directly, but they can also experience it indirectly by:

  • hearing the abuse from another room
  • seeing a parent's injuries or distress afterwards
  • finding disarray like broken furniture 
  • being hurt from being nearby or trying to stop the abuse
  • experiencing a reduced quality in parenting as a result of the abuse (Royal College of General Practitioners and NSPCC, 2014; Holt, Buckley and Whelan, 2008).

Impact of domestic abuse

Domestic abuse can have a serious effect on a child's behaviour, brain development and overall wellbeing. It undermines a child’s basic need for safety and security and can have a negative impact on a child’s:

  • development
  • education outcomes
  • mental health (Holt, Buckley and Whelan, 2008; Stanley, 2011; Szilassy et al, 2017).

> Take our face-to-face training course on trauma and child brain development

Psychological effects of experiencing domestic abuse include: 

  • aggression and challenging behaviour 
  • depression
  • anxiety - including worrying about a parent’s safety 
  • changes in mood 
  • difficulty interacting with others 
  • withdrawal
  • fearfulness, including fear of conflict
  • suicidal thoughts or feelings (Diez, et al 2018; Early Intervention Foundation, 2018).

Children who experience parental conflict may also have an increased likelihood of displaying behaviour like smoking, drug use and early sexual activity (Early Intervention Foundation, 2018).

Domestic abuse can cause confusing relationships with parents. Children may:

  • not have a strong bond with their parents/carers
  • worry their parents will divorce
  • hope an abused parent will leave for safety reasons
  • be afraid of their parents.

Teenagers may worry that being raised in abusive environment will affect their own future relationships.

One young person who contacted our Childline service explained:

"I have seen my parents physically hurting each other for years. I used to cry every day and self-harm. I feel like I’m really affected by what I’ve seen. I have a boyfriend now and I feel like he’s acting just like my dad. I feel like I can never be in a stable relationship."

Gender unknown, 18 (NSPCC, 2018)

> Visit the Childline website

Physical effects include:

  • higher rates of illness and fatigue
  • reduced physical growth
  • impact on nervous and hormonal systems

(Early Intervention Foundation, 2018).

Developmental effects of trauma and adverse childhood experiences such as domestic abuse can affect a child’s brain development. This may impact:

  • executive functioning skills
  • brain architecture
  • and lead to overactive stress responses

(Shonkoff et al, 2008; Shonkoff et al, 2014).

> Find out more about the effects of trauma and abuse on child brain development


Recognising domestic abuse

Domestic abuse can happen in any relationship. It can continue even after the relationship has ended, for example during contact visits or on social media.

Both men and women can be abused or be abusers.

Teenagers can also experience abuse in their own relationships (Barter et al, 2009). 

Risk and vulnerability factors

Times of transition or adversity

All families have their ups and downs. While many parents or carers experiencing challenging circumstances are able to provide safe and loving care for their family, it can be difficult to cope if problems mount up. This can leave children more vulnerable to abuse and neglect.

Times of transition, such as pregnancy, having a baby or separation and divorce, can increase levels of stress and conflict in a relationship.

When parents are already experiencing challenges such as mental health problems or substance misuse it can be more difficult to maintain healthy relationships.

In some cases, these factors can lead to or worsen domestic abuse.

Links to other forms of abuse

If a child lives in a home where domestic abuse is happening, they're more at risk of other types of abuse (Stanley, 2011).

Signs and indicators

It can be difficult to tell if domestic abuse is happening, because perpetrators can act very differently when other people are around.

Children who experience domestic abuse may:

  • display behaviour that others perceive to be challenging
  • suffer from depression and anxiety
  • not do as well at school as usual.

Signs of anxiety

Children who experience domestic abuse may feel on constant alert. Signs of anxiety or fear-related behaviour include:

  • bed wetting or unexplained illness
  • running away from home
  • constant worry about possible danger or safety of family members
  • aggression towards others (Early Intervention Foundation, 2018).

Responding to domestic abuse


If you think a child is in immediate danger, contact the police on 999. If you're worried about a child but they are not in immediate danger, you should share your concerns.

  • Follow your organisational child protection procedures. Organisations that work with children and families must have safeguarding policies and procedures in place.
  • Contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 or by emailing Our trained professionals will talk through your concerns with you and give you expert advice. 
  • Contact your local child protection services. Their contact details can be found on the website for the local authority the child lives in. 
  • Contact the police.

Services will risk assess the situation and take action to protect the child as appropriate either through statutory involvement or other support. This may include making a referral to the local authority.

> See our information about recognising and responding to abuse

Talking about domestic abuse

Children may find it difficult to talk about domestic abuse for many reasons. They may feel ashamed, afraid, or not have the language to describe what they've experienced. If they have been living with domestic abuse since they were very young, they may not realise that it's wrong – and they may think it's their fault.

If a child shares details of domestic abuse with you, it's important to:

  • listen carefully
  • let them know they've done the right thing by telling you
  • tell them it's not their fault
  • say you will take them seriously
  • don't confront the alleged abuser
  • explain what you'll do next
  • follow the instructions above to report what the child has told you as soon as possible.

Never promise to keep what a child has told you a secret. Explain that you need to tell someone else who can help.

> See our information about recognising and responding to abuse


Preventing domestic abuse

Early help

By supporting families as soon as challenges are identified, practitioners can help parents and carers develop the skills needed to cope with stress and adversity, reducing potential conflict and improving outcomes for children.

Positive family relationships

Effective interventions to help adults develop more positive ways to interact with each other include:

  • helping them understand the impact of conflict and see what they could do differently
  • developing coping and problem-solving strategies to help handle stress
  • building skills to communicate better and avoid conflict through modelling, roleplay and feedback
  • improving the quality of parenting
  • learning how to co-parent positively (if divorced or separated) (Early Intervention Foundation, 2018).

Giving children a voice

People who work with children have a key role to play in recognising the signs of domestic abuse and reporting any concerns. But they also have an essential role in teaching children to recognise if it’s happening in their family or in their own relationships and know where to go for help.


Primary schools

Schools should make children aware of all forms of abuse in an age appropriate way through lessons and assemblies. This includes explaining what domestic abuse is and how children can get help.

Our Speak out Stay safe service for primary schools helps children understand abuse in all its forms and know how to ask for support.

> Find out more about Speak Out Stay Safe

Secondary schools

In secondary schools, teachers have the opportunity to promote healthy relationships and let young people know who they can talk to if they ever need support.

> Find out more about promoting healthy relationships

Direct work

Supporting children who have been exposed to domestic abuse

There are specialist services and support available for children and young people who have or are experiencing domestic abuse.

Operation Encompass

Operation Encompass is a safeguarding partnership between schools and the police which supports children who are exposed to domestic abuse. The scheme is being rolled out across all police forces in England and Wales (Operation Encompass, 2021).

Under the scheme, the police will inform the nominated child protection lead (known as the key adult) at a child’s school before the start of the next school day, if the child has been exposed to an incident of domestic abuse the previous evening. This will enable the school to put measures in place to support the child.

The school’s nominated child protection lead should attend a half day briefing to familiarise themselves with how the partnership works and understand more about the impact that domestic abuse has on children.

Domestic abuse, recovering together (DART™)

Although the effects of experiencing domestic abuse can last into adulthood, many children can move forward once they're in a safer and more stable environment and have the right therapeutic support.

Our DART programme gives children and their mothers who have experienced domestic abuse an opportunity to talk about it, learn to communicate with each other and rebuild their relationship. They can also meet other children and mothers who have lived through similar experiences and share what they’ve learned.

We’ve evaluated DART and found it to be successful in improving the relationship between mothers and children who had experienced domestic abuse (Smith, 2016).

We're now offering other organisations the opportunity to deliver DART under license, so that more children and mothers can benefit from the service.

> Find out more about DART

> Find out how we can help you deliver DART

Legislation and guidance

Legislation about domestic abuse

Key legislation

Legislation in England, Northern Ireland and Wales states that "seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another person" is a form of harm (Section 120.  Adoption and Children Act 2002; Section 28. Family Homes and Domestic Violence (Northern Ireland) Order 1998).

In England and Wales, "controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship" is an offence (Section 76. Serious Crime Act 2015). The offence carries a maximum sentence of 5 years’ imprisonment, a fine or both.

In England, the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 recognises children as victims of domestic abuse if they “see, hear or otherwise experience the effects of abuse”. The Act places a duty on local authorities to support all victims of domestic abuse in safe accommodation such as refuges.

In Scotland, legislation includes domestic abuse in the definition of child abuse (Section 24. Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006). The Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 also makes it a statutory aggravation for domestic abuse to involve or affect a child (this includes a child hearing, seeing or being present during an abusive incident).

In Scotland the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016 aims to improve the justice system’s response to abusive behaviour and sexual harm. When sentencing, courts are required to take into account whether an offence involved abuse of a partner or ex-partner. Offences committed elsewhere in the UK can now be prosecuted in Scottish courts and a criminal non-harassment order can be imposed in a wider range of circumstances than before.

In Wales, the Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015 includes provisions to improve arrangements to promote awareness of gender-based violence and to prevent, protect and support victims of gender-based violence, domestic abuse and sexual violence. The Act also introduces a needs-based approach to developing strategies to respond to all forms of violence against women.


Statutory guidance highlights the responsibility of those in the education, community and care sectors to safeguard children from all forms of abuse and neglect:

Other policy and guidance

The Home Office has published a strategy on tackling violence against women and girls (Home Office, 2021a). The elements of the Strategy which relate to crime, policing and justice apply to England and Wales. The elements relating to health, social care, and education apply to England only.

In England, the Home Office has published factsheets on the measures included in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, why they are needed and the impact they will have (Home Office, 2021b).

In Northern Ireland, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) and the Department of Justice have published a strategy for tackling domestic and sexual violence and abuse. The strategy seeks to prioritise the emotional and psychological needs of children who have suffered as a result of violence and abuse. The strategy includes an annual action plan (Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) and Department of Justice, 2021).

In Scotland, the Scottish Government and Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) have published Equally safe: Scotland's strategy to eradicate violence against women. It aims prevent and end violence against women and girls in Scotland (Scottish Government and Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, 2018).

Keep up-to-date with new legislation and guidance by signing up to CASPAR, our current awareness service for policy, practice and research

References and resources

References and resources

Barter, C. (2009) In the name of love: partner abuse and violence in teenage relationships. British Journal of Social Work, 39(2): 211-233.

Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) and Department of Justice (2020) Stopping Domestic and Sexual Violence and Abuse in Northern Ireland Strategy. Belfast: Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and Department of Justice.

Diez, C. et al (2018) Adolescents at serious psychosocial risk: what is the role of additional exposure to violence in the home? Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 33(6): 865-888.

Early Intervention Foundation (2018) Why reducing parental conflict matters for the NHS (PDF). London: Early Intervention Foundation.

Holt, S., Buckley, H. and Whelan, S. (2008). The impact of exposure to domestic violence on children and young people: a review of the literature. Child Abuse and Neglect, 32(8): 797-810.

Home Office (2021a) Policy paper: tackling violence against women and girls strategy. [Accessed 26/07/2021].

Home Office (2021b) Domestic Abuse Bill 2020: factsheets. [Accessed 27/05/2021].

Home Office (2013) Definition of domestic violence and abuse: guide for local areas. [Accessed 27/05/2021].

NSPCC (2018) Children living in families facing adversity: NSPCC helplines report. London: NSPCC.

Operation Encompass (2021) Operation Encompass. [Accessed 23/07/2021].

Police Scotland and the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service (2019) Joint protocol between Police Scotland and the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service In partnership challenging domestic abuse (PDF). [Edinburgh]: Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service.

Scottish Government and Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) (2018) Equally Safe: Scotland's strategy to eradicate violence against women. [Accessed 23/07/2021].

Shonkoff, J.P. et al (2008) The timing and quality of early experiences combine to shape brain architecture working paper 5. Cambridge: Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University. 

Shonkoff, J.P. et al (2014) Excessive stress disrupts the architecture of the developing brain working paper 3. Cambridge: Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University.

Smith, E. (2016) Domestic abuse, recovering together (DART): evaluation report. London: NSPCC.

Stanley, N. (2011) Children experiencing domestic violence: a research review. Totnes: Research in Practice.

Szilassy, E. et al (2017) Making the links between domestic violence and child safeguarding: an evidence-based pilot training for general practice. Health and Social Care in the Community, 25(6): 1722-1732.

Welsh Government (2019) Domestic abuse, sexual violence and slavery: guidance for professionals. [Accessed 23/07/2021].


If a child or young person needs confidential help and advice direct them to Childline. Calls to 0800 1111 are free and children can also contact Childline online or read about domestic abuse on the Childline website. You can also download or order Childline posters and wallet cards.


Our elearning courses can help develop your understanding of how to protect children from domestic abuse and other abuse types.

Introduction to safeguarding and child protection

Child protection in schools 

Child protection in sport 

Safeguarding awareness training for workers who enter people's homes 

Further reading

For further reading about domestic abuse search the NSPCC Library using the keywords: "family violence", "violent families", "children in violent families", "partner violence".

If you need more specific information, please contact our Information Service.