Women’s experiences of Domestic Violence and Abuse

Impact of domestic violence and abuse on children

The majority of the women we interviewed had children, ranging in age from nine months to over 30 years in age and sometimes from a previous relationship. Seven women did not have any children. We did not talk to the children but women’s accounts revealed many ways in which living in a household with domestic violence or abuse impacted on them. To find out what women did to protect their children, get help for them and keep them safe, see ‘Getting help for children affected by domestic violence and abuse’.

Research which has involved children demonstrates the many different ways in which abuse can impact on them. It affects their relationship with the abuser, the non-abusing parent and other people around them. Children’s development can be impaired which can have a knock on effect on their education and ability to develop and maintain relationships with others. Key to addressing these impacts is support for the non-abusing parent. Children can experience a wide range of impacts from bed-wetting to lashing out. 

When asked what the main impact of domestic abuse had been for them, the majority of women said ‘the effects on the children’.
As Charlotte said, she had 20 years of life before she experienced an abusive relationship, but her children 

‘Have lived with that from the minute they were born … that’s going to take a long time to rebuild. There is no quick fix for this’.
Children were often a reason for women to leave a relationship, as they wanted to protect them from abuse, and could also be a reason for staying in a relationship, as women wanted to keep the family together and hoped their relationship with their partner might improve. Some women had to leave the abusive relationship, taking their children with them, to retain custody of them. Children caught up in domestic abuse had to cope with the temporary or long-term separation from one or both of their parents. Some women experienced a conflict between what was best for themselves and what was best for their children, as described by Catherine.
Witnessing violence in the relationship between their parents

Children were sometimes present when violent attacks took place so that they saw an adult (usually their mum) getting hurt. Some men also frequently caused damage to property so children saw their homes being damaged or even wrecked. Min’s partner verbally abused her children and things came to a head one day when he smashed a window in the house following a violent argument. Min cut herself very badly on a piece of glass. Her daughter was terrified her mother would die while her son helped to save her life. Nessa said how hard it was to bring up her children after they witnessed their dad arguing all the time and threatening their mum with a knife.
Shaina’s children remained scared of their dad after he left and did not want to see him as they had witnessed so much violence, including seeing him smash up the house.

Children receiving physical abuse themselves

Domestic violence or abuse that was mostly directed at their mum was sometimes also directed at the children. In some cases this included sexual abuse. Tanya’s children both witnessed and experienced violence.
Several women feared that their children had been abused by their partners, but children were reluctant to talk about it or were told by the abuser to keep it quiet. Alonya tried to shield her daughter from her partner’s violence but she was concerned that he might have abused her while Alonya was at work. Liz’s daughter told her mother she was frightened of her father because he hugged her, put his hands down inside her leggings, and sometimes hit her.
Coercive control over children

Children were influenced by the controlling behaviour that was happening, mainly towards their mum, but also to themselves and the whole way the household operated. The accounts of women revealed some direct effects of this, such as children not being allowed to make a lot of noise, to have their friends round, or not being allowed to have a birthday party. Controlling behaviour was often more subtle, for example their dad would discipline them quite harshly, while their mum took on the role of protector.
Some women described how their children lived in fear of their dad, never wanted to be alone with him and were frightened of upsetting him, so they were ‘living on eggshells’ like their mum. Others resented their mum for not standing up to their abusive partner, and for not leaving him. Some children bonded to their dad and turned against their mum. Lindsay said her daughter had ‘a lot of resentment’ against her… ‘she seemed to think I allowed this to happen’

We were told about a range of tactics partners used to get children on their side, like buying them expensive gifts and spreading rumours about their mum. Jessica described how her ex manipulated her two adult children against her by giving them money and ‘bad-mouthing’ her.
Post-separation, children were sometimes used by men as bargaining tools in legal proceedings and access arrangements. Tasha and other women said they became a channel by which their ex could contact and ‘get at’ their mum. Victoria’s partner took their son, nearly two years old, away from her for six days and nights without her agreement. When he was returned, he was anxious and clingy and Victoria feels the abuse had long-term impacts on him.
Children missing out on family life and contacts with relatives

Many women were living in relative isolation with their partner, so the children also had little contact with the wider extended family. 

Some women described how, when they left the relationship, their children experienced un-settled lives, often lacking a routine, moving home a lot and maybe spending time in a women’s refuge. Most women had very little in the way of financial resources. Alonya’s daughter initially kept in contact with her dad using Skype but Alonya eventually had to cut off all contact when he tried to take their daughter home to the Middle East and she feared she would lose her forever.
Children experiencing poor parenting

Women often felt that their children experienced poor parenting because of the abuse and violence at home. Many fathers were either absent most of the time, drunk or on drugs, or neglected children in their care if their mum was out.
Yasmin’s only chance to get out of the house was to walk her children to nursery but her husband made her leave the baby at home, to ensure that she returned.
Charlotte described trying so hard to ‘placate’ her partner to make sure ‘nothing bad happened’ that she changed her natural parenting style to suit him. Looking back she felt angry and sad that her daughters ‘missed out’.
Some women said that too much of their energy went into dealing with the abuse, so they did not have enough attention for their children. They talked of feeling very guilty, that they had ‘failed’ their children by subjecting them to their partner’s abuse and for not leaving sooner.

Impacts on children’s behaviour

Women’s stories varied. Some women felt they had managed to protect their children from the worst aspects of domestic abuse, but many feared that their children might grow up to repeat the ‘cycle of abuse’. They recounted how their boys were beginning to mirror their dad’s behaviour, or were becoming angry and aggressive.
Some women saw their daughters getting into abusive relationships themselves.
Linda said that when her husband left, she felt her grandchildren missed out on contact with their grandfather and the family home. Linda described how she collapsed with illness and exhaustion following violence and manipulation from her husband. Her daughters were not ready to help her out by offering her support, needing instead for her to be ‘strong’.

Impacts on children: psychological and health problems

Women’s stories revealed children who found it hard to trust, who had difficulty expressing anger or flew into destructive rages, others who experienced separation anxiety. Sara’s daughter ‘sobbed uncontrollably’ and wet the bed when it was time to visit her father. Tanya’s children witnessed a lot of violence in the home and she described how they would get anxious when their father’s car pulled up in the drive after work. Anna’s daughter found it hard to leave her mum to go to school.
Many of the women said their children were diagnosed with mental health problems as a result of domestic abuse, often post-separation. Jane’s daughter developed bulimia nervosa*. Philippa’s daughter was still on anti-depressants, ten years after they left her dad, and experiences flashbacks if she hears anyone ‘yelling’.
A few women said that their children became suicidal. Khalida’s son twice tried to strangle himself in response to his father’s abuse. This was the final trigger for Khalida to leave her husband. Her son also developed a long-term chronic bowel problem.

Children taking action

Several women said that actions taken by their children had been the trigger to getting help and leaving the abusive relationship. For example, Khalida’s eleven year old son talked to the doctor. Khalida's husband psychologically and physically abused both her and their son but she could not confide in the doctor as her husband always went with them. The boy had a chronic bowel problem and had attempted suicide but he managed to create an oppertunity for disclosure about the violence and abuse at home. Jane’s daughter confided in the school counsellor.
*An emotional disorder characterised by bouts of extreme over-eating followed by fasting or self-induced vomitting or purging.


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