SFE Safeguarding Adviser, Lucie Welch, discusses domestic abuse, its effects on children and how to support children in your setting
It is estimated that 1 in 7 children in the UK have lived in a household with domestic abuse- that is roughly 4 children in every classroom of 30.
For many years, the focus was solely placed on the parental victim of the abuse- rather than any children who may have seen, heard or experienced the abuse themselves, meaning hundreds of thousands of children across the UK do not receive adequate support to deal with the life-long impact of this trauma.
Domestic Abuse goes far beyond the stereo-typical physical abuse often seen in the media or on television, but encompasses all manner of emotional, sexual and financial abuse.
Devastatingly, the frequency and impact of domestic abuse have often been downplayed, with many cases being ignored by professionals and victims stigmatised for sharing their experience.
The introduction of the Domestic Abuse Act in 2021 (updated July 2022) aimed to change this and stated that children were to be recognised as victims of Domestic Abuse in their own right- but how do we best support these children in our settings?
Types of Domestic Abuse
Women’s Aid define Domestic Abuse as ‘an incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and violent behaviour, including sexual violence, in the majority of cases by a partner or ex-partner, but also by a family member or carer’.
This will look different in every household, with some victims experiencing one type or abuse, whereas other may experience many. Although they differ in actions, the theme behind the abuse is often the same- for the perpetrator to hold power and control over the victim.
These patterns of abuse can include emotional and psychological abuse and degradation, causing physical injury and pain, sexual assault or rape, control over who a person sees, what they wear or how they act or financial control- limiting the victim’s access to money. This abuse can happen in person or online, including sharing inappropriate images, ‘bugging’ or tracking someone’s phone or harassment.
Whatever the abuse looks like- it is illegal. Whether the perpetrator is male or female, whether it takes place in a heterosexual or queer relationship, it is illegal.
Developmental Trauma & ACEs
An estimated 90% of children whose mothers are abused, witness the abuse themselves. This may include seeing or hearing the abuse or even being coerced into taking part themselves. Felitti et al (1998) undertook a study into how trauma experienced in a child’s earliest years had an impact on their later life- referring to these traumas as ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’ or ACEs.
These experiences were identified as having a significant, detrimental and life-long impact on the victims- with domestic abuse in the home being identified as one of these ‘experiences.’ Children who grow up with domestic abuse in the home may experience feelings of blame and responsibility. It can have negative impact on their social development and how they form relationships which can lead to lasting harms such as maladapted coping strategies such as alcohol or drug misuse, serious attachment issues or mental health problems.
The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 & Statutory Guidance
The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 was a long campaigned for piece of legislation, which set out what domestic abuse may look like and how there should be a consistent response from frontline support partners. It provides guidance for those who work with victims and most importantly, it states that children who witness or experience domestic abuse in the home are victims of domestic abuse in their own right.
The statutory guidance shares that some of the impacts that domestic abuse can have on children can include:
- feeling anxious or depressed
- low self-esteem and difficulties with forming healthy relationships
- hypervigilance in reading body language or changes in mood and atmosphere
- having difficulty sleeping, nightmares
- physical symptoms such as stomach aches or bed wetting
- delayed development or deterioration in speech, language and communication
- reduction in school attainment, truancy, risk of exclusion from school
- increased application to activities outside the home, including academia or sports, as a distraction
- inconsistent regulation of emotions, including becoming distressed, upset or angry
- becoming aggressive or internalising their distress and becoming withdrawn
- managing their space within the home so they are not visible
- using alcohol or drugs, or self-harming
Supporting Children in your Setting
Domestic abuse can be a difficult topic for children to talk about, they may feel shame, guilt or a sense of loyalty to the perpetrator. Children who have experienced abuse for many years may not even realise that their experiences are not normal. In schools and education settings we need to ensure that children are given the time and space to share how they are feeling and that there are emotionally available adults who are ready to listen.
If children choose to share their experiences, school staff need to treat these disclosures as they would any safeguarding concern, recording and reporting where appropriate.
Children should be given your full attention and be encouraged to share how they are feeling.
Adults need to be compassionate and understanding, validating the child’s feelings without demonising the perpetrator.
Children should be reminded that whatever has happened is not their fault and that they have done the right thing by sharing.
It can be beneficial for child victims of abuse to have dedicated adults that they can talk to- this can help to improve trust and build positive relationships. Children can also be directed to local services who may offer outreach support. High-quality, pastoral intervention should be used to help children understand their experiences and offer safe coping strategies for self-regulation and dealing with other difficult or triggering experiences.
It is essential for school staff to be aware of the signs and symptoms of domestic abuse and to nurture high-quality relationships which will hopefully allow children to open up and share their experiences. These disclosures should be treated with the utmost importance with help being sought from children’s social care- in line with your local threshold guidance.
Trauma can be healed. It is important to remember that quick and effective intervention can have a significant, positive impact on the lives of children. It is the job of educators to give the children the tools to survive and thrive, despite their circumstances, whilst supporting them to achieve their best.
At Services For Education, we help equip schools and colleges with the necessary resources and learning programmes that can help them manage safeguarding and emotional health and wellbeing issues within their settings.
If you would like further staff training on Domestic Abuse or any other safeguarding topic, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Adviser
Lucie Welch – Adviser, Services For Education
Lucie Welch taught in primary schools for over 13 years, holding the roles of Assistant Head of School, Designated Safeguarding Lead, Designated Teacher for Looked After Children, Attendance Lead as well as many subject lead roles.
Through the role of DSL, Lucie has garnered huge experience and knowledge of safeguarding which she is passionate about sharing with schools both across Birmingham and nationwide. With a strong understanding of policies and procedures, as well as safeguarding in schools at a day-to-day operational level, Lucie can provide bespoke consultancy and training on a host of safeguarding related topics.
Lucie also leads on PSHE and RSE and has a focused interest in children's emotional health and wellbeing, understanding how trauma and adverse childhood experiences can impact children, as well as educating staff and pupils on Sexual Violence, Sexual Harassment and Harmful Sexual Behaviour in schools.
Lucie is also a part of our Health for Life team and helps deliver the Early Career Framework on behalf of the Best Practice Network.
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