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Children and Domestic Violence

Children who live in households where there is domestic violence can experience physical, psychological and emotional harm through directly or indirectly witnessing and experiencing domestic violence. The definition of significant harm in the Children’s Act 1989 was extended in 2002 to acknowledge the adverse effects of children’s exposure to domestic violence. It now states that significant harm includes: “the impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another”.

Domestic violence is defined by the UK Government as :

‘Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality.

Home office 2018

*This definition includes so called ‘honour’ based violence, female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced marriage, and is clear that victims are not confined to one gender or ethnic group.

 Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are stressful events occurring in childhood including:

  • Domestic violence
  • parental abandonment through separation or divorce
  • a parent with a mental health condition
  • being the victim of abuse (physical, sexual and/or emotional)
  • being the victim of neglect (physical and emotional)
  • a member of the household being in prison
  • growing up in a household in which there are adults experiencing alcohol and drug use problems.

“My husband was a violent man towards me and I’m sure that my son picked up on the energy”


The model promotes a cumulative model of developmental trauma with surveys suggesting correlations between children who have an ACE ‘score’ of 4 or more and long-term negative outcomes such as: being in prison, heart disease, health-harming behaviours and committing violence. 

Whilst it is helpful to understand the impacts of childhood trauma, Edwards et al (2017) point out that this model is problematic in that it attempts to diagnose and label sections of the population as deficient. Further, viewing social issues through the prism of ACEs may well inhibit our ability to identify and respond to human needs. Furthermore, the model does not take into account the context or impact of these forms of adversity on children. 

Some schools are screening children for ACEs and giving the child’s ‘score’ to parents. This can be extremely damaging, especially if no support is then provided. It is much better to develop a trauma informed model of understanding the impacts of adversity and abuse on children and how this may manifest in their behaviour with tailored plans in place to meet individual needs. 


Children are covered by child protection legislation where professionals have a duty to promote and safeguard the welfare of the child.

Research into the needs of children affected by domestic violence found that their two primary needs are to be safe and to have someone to talk to. [2]

Warning signs

Many of these warning signs could be indicative of a number of issues but abuse should be considered as a likely cause. Any suicidal ideation should be dealt with immediately.

  1. Cawson, P., Wattam, C., Brooker, S. and Kelly, G. (2000) Child Maltreatment in the United Kingdom: A study of the prevalence of abuse and neglect. NSPCC
  2. Mullender, A., Hague, G., Imam, U., Kelly, L., Malos, E. and Regan, L. (2002) Children’s perspectives on domestic violence