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Why language matters: domestic abuse is broader than domestic violence

Last updated: 02 May 2023 Topics: Blog
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From the NSPCC'S Library and Information Service specialists 

What comes to mind when you hear the phrase ‘domestic violence’? For many, it’s closely associated with incidents of physical violence perpetrated by one partner against another. But domestic abuse doesn’t have to involve physical violence, and its effects are felt by everyone exposed to the abuse. It’s important not to limit our understanding of domestic abuse; and this starts with addressing how we talk about it.

The different types of domestic abuse

The phrase ‘domestic violence’ implies that we are talking solely about physical violence. This may restrict how we view abusive relationships and narrow our perceptions of what constitutes abuse. Although physical domestic violence is a serious form of abuse, it is crucial that we acknowledge the many other types that are sometimes overlooked. These include:1

  • coercive control and emotional abuse, including behaviour that threatens, humiliates, intimidates or makes a person dependent on an abuser2
  • online or digital abuse, including abuse perpetrated over social media or the monitoring of emails and texts3
  • economic and financial abuse, including behaviour that impacts a person’s financial freedom or controls their actions.4

Evidence shows that these other forms of abuse can occur before, alongside or without the presence of physical violence.5 Non-physical forms of abuse can have a significant impact on the lives of those involved,6 including any children in the household.7 For example, emotional abuse has been found to contribute to feelings of loneliness and despair.8 So it’s important that conversations around domestic abuse are not limited to incidents of physical violence.

How this can impact services

The term ‘domestic violence’ can influence how professionals recognise and respond to abuse. A focus on physical violence has been highlighted in the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel’s briefing on safeguarding and domestic abuse, summarised in our CASPAR Briefing. The Panel’s report identified that an overemphasis on physical violence meant that non-physical incidents were sometimes viewed as ‘low level’ concerns, resulting in a lack of professional support or intervention.9

The same briefing, and our wider analysis of case reviews, also identified issues with professionals overlooking the fact that children were directly experiencing and affected by domestic abuse. When professionals focus on incidents of physical violence, this perpetuates a narrative of one person committing a violent act against another and may reinforce the belief that the only person impacted by domestic abuse is the person on the receiving end of physical violence with less concern for the wider family. This can also make it seem as though the relationship is no longer abusive if the violence stops.

> Listen to our podcast on domestic abuse and child protection

Legislation in England and Wales recognises children who are affected by domestic abuse as victims of domestic abuse in their own right10 and legislation in both Scotland11 and Northern Ireland12 also recognises the impact of domestic abuse on children.

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.

> Read more about the impact of domestic abuse on children

Using the phrase ‘domestic abuse’ in place of ‘domestic violence’ can help prompt professionals to think about different types of abuse beyond direct physical violence and provide support for families accordingly. It can also encourage exploration of the issue through a child protection lens, as an issue that can and does have an adverse affect on children. Acknowledging the impact on children can help prompt a child protection response.

How language impacts people experiencing abuse

People who are experiencing domestic abuse aren’t always able to recognise their relationship as abusive.13 Terminology which focuses on violence can alienate people living with other forms of abuse or cause them to minimise their own experiences. The phrase domestic abuse can be a good starting point in helping families recognise when they are experiencing abuse and feel more confident in seeking support.

Making small changes in how we talk about domestic abuse, by avoiding misleading terminology, can make a real difference for professionals and the wider public.

Using the phrase domestic abuse is one step towards encouraging a safeguarding response to domestic abuse, increasing society’s awareness of the many forms the abuse can take, and supporting professionals to have effective conversations about all types of abuse.

Find out more about domestic abuse and child protection on NSPCC Learning:


Women's Aid (2015) What is domestic abuse? [Accessed 17/04/2023]
Women's Aid (2017) What is coercive control? [Accessed 17/04/2023]
Women's Aid (2015) Online and digital abuse [Accessed 17/04/2023]
Women's Aid (2017) What is financial abuse? [Accessed 17/04/2023]
Tashkandi, A. and Rasheed, F. P. (2009) Wife abuse: a hidden problem. East Mediterranean Health Journal, pp. 15(5): 1242-1253
Lammers, M., Ritchie, J. and Robertson, N. (2005) Women's Experience of Emotional Abuse in Intimate Relationships Journal of Emotional Abuse
Women's Aid (2015) The impact of domestic abuse on children and young people [Accessed 17/04/2023]
Karakurt, G. and Silver, K. E. (2013) Emotional abuse in intimate relationships: The role of gender and age Violence and victims
Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel (2022) Multi-agency safeguarding and domestic abuse paper (PDF)
Home Office (2021) Domestic abuse: draft statutory guidance framework
Scottish Government (2023) National guidance for child protection in Scotland. [Accessed 20/11/2023].
Belfast: Department of Justice (2022) Abusive Behaviour in an intimate or family relationship (PDF)
Parker, I. (2015) Victims of domestic abuse: struggling for support (PDF) London: Citizen's Advice Bureau

Key points

  • Using the term ‘domestic violence’ can imply that domestic abuse must involve physical violence. ‘Domestic abuse’ is broader and takes many forms, including emotional, economic and financial abuse or coercive control.
  • A focus on physical violence can result in professionals overlooking children's and the wider families’ experiences of domestic abuse. This can result in families not getting the support they need.
  • People experiencing domestic abuse might not recognise their own experiences as abuse if they don’t involve physical violence, and this can affect their engagement with support services.