Protecting children from domestic abuse

Last updated: 29 Nov 2021
Introduction

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 someone they care about being injured and/or distressed
  • finding damage to their home environment like broken furniture
  • being hurt from being caught up in or trying to stop the abuse
  • not getting the care and support they need from their parents or carers as a result of the abuse (Holt, Buckley and Whelan, 2008).

Why domestic abuse is a safeguarding issue

The videos on this page feature Paddi Vint, an NSPCC Development and Quality Manager who is overseeing a three-year domestic abuse project at the NSPCC which is supported by the Covid-19 Support Fund.

Impact

Impact of domestic abuse

Domestic abuse undermines a child's basic need for safety and security. It can have a serious effect on their behaviour, brain development, education outcomes and overall wellbeing (Holt, Buckley and Whelan, 2008; Stanley, 2011; Szilassy et al, 2017).

Psychological effects

Psychological effects of experiencing domestic abuse can include: 

  • aggression and challenging behaviour 
  • depression
  • anxiety - including worrying about a parent’s or carer's safety 
  • changes in mood 
  • difficulty interacting with others 
  • withdrawal
  • fearfulness, including fear of conflict
  • suicidal thoughts or feelings

(Diez, et al 2018).

Domestic abuse can cause confusing relationships with parents and carers. Children might experience conflicting feelings, including:

  • not having a strong bond with their parents or carers
  • hoping an abused parent will leave for safety reasons
  • worrying about what might happen if their parents or carers separate
  • being afraid of their parents or carers.

Some teenagers 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

Developmental effects

Traumatic 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

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

Recognising

Recognising domestic abuse

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

People of all genders 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.

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

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

In some cases, these factors can contribute to or exacerbate 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.

You might notice changes in a child's patterns of behaviour, for example if they aren't doing as well in school as they used to. Or they might display behaviour that the adults around them perceive to be challenging.

Signs of anxiety

Children who experience domestic abuse might feel constantly stressed or on alert. They might be afraid of what's happening at home. This might all feel 'normal' to them if they have lived with domestic abuse for a long time.

You might notice children showing signs of anxiety or fear.

> Find out more about recognising if a child or young person is struggling with their mental health

Responding

Responding to domestic abuse

Reporting

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 help@nspcc.org.uk. 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.

The police and NSPCC helpline will risk assess the situation and take action to protect the child as appropriate. This may include making a referral to the local authority.

> See our information about recognising and responding to abuse

Talking about domestic abuse

Children can find it difficult to talk about domestic abuse for many reasons. They might 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 might think it's their fault.

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

  • give them your full attention and keep your body language open and encouraging
  • be compassionate and understanding, and reassure them their feelings are important
  • let them go at their own pace - don't interrupt them
  • reflect back what they've said to check your understanding - and use their language to show it's their experience
  • remind them that abuse is never their fault.

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

> Find out more about how to respond to children disclosing abuse

> See our information about recognising and responding to abuse

Confidential support

Children and young people who would benefit from confidential advice and support can contact Childline.

Calls to 0800 1111 are free and children can also contact Childline online or get information and advice on the Childline website.

You can download or order Childline posters and wallet cards to keep on display and give to children and young people.

Prevention

Preventing domestic abuse

Early help

By supporting families as soon as challenges are identified, practitioners can help reduce the factors that contribute to or exacerbate domestic abuse.

> Listen to our podcast episode on improving practice around domestic abuse

> Read our briefing on the learning from case reviews about domestic abuse

Building positive family relationships

In some situations, it's helpful for adults to learn more positive ways to regulate their emotions and interact with each other. This includes:

  • reflecting on situations and discussing what they could do differently
  • developing coping and problem-solving strategies to help handle stress
  • building skills to communicate better and avoid conflict
  • learning how to co-parent positively

(Schrader McMillan and Barlow, 2019).

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 encouraging children to speak out if there is ever anything they're worried about.

Schools

Primary schools

Schools should talk to children about all forms of abuse in an age-appropriate way. Children should be taught that abuse is never okay, and regularly reminded who they can talk to if they have any concerns.

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 talk to children and young people about healthy relationships. Schools should develop an environment where young people feel safe and comfortable about reaching out for support if they need to.

> Find out more about promoting healthy relationships

> Find out how to have difficult conversations with children and young people

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 experienced or are experiencing domestic abuse.

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

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 a reported 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.

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, 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).

Guidance

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 to 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) (2016) Stopping domestic and sexual violence and abuse in Northern Ireland: a seven year strategy (PDF). Belfast: DHSSPS.

Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) and Department of Justice (2021) Stopping domestic and sexual violence and abuse in Northern Ireland strategy. [Accessed 08/10/2021].

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.

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 08/10/2021].

Home Office (2021b) Domestic Abuse Bill 2020: factsheets. [Accessed 08/10/2021].

Home Office (2013) Definition of domestic violence and abuse: guide for local areas. [Accessed 08/10/2021].

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

Operation Encompass (2021) Operation Encompass. [Accessed: 08/10/2021].

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.

Schrader McMillan, A. and Barlow, J. (2019) Steps to safety: report on the feasibility study. London: NSPCC.

Scottish Government and Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) (2018) Equally Safe: Scotland's strategy to eradicate violence against women. [Accessed 08/10/2021].

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 08/10/2021].

Childline

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.

Elearning

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.