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Domestic Abuse - Hidden Effects on Children

View profile for Liz Headley
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Sometimes it can be hard for parents to accept that even though they believe they have done their very best to protect their children from the conflict between them, children can be really good at picking up on tension and there will be an emotional and/or behavioural reaction to this. Whilst acknowledging that being the adult victim of domestic abuse is traumatic, please do remember that children, even though they may not see the conflict, are usually aware of the stress and tension between their parents and can become very anxious and hypervigilant which can affect their behaviour.

Henry and Tilly

This is the story of Henry who is 8 years old and Tilly who is 6 years old, a fictional scenario that I experience often in the course of my work. They had been referred to me by their Primary School, where there had been concerns about both of them regarding their emotional well being and their behaviour in school. Henry had regularly been getting in to conflict with his peers and had also lashed out at a couple of adults in the school. Tilly’s behaviour had seemingly regressed and she would often be found on her own sitting in the corner of a room facing the wall or ‘hiding’ under a table. School knew that the parents had recently separated but weren’t sure how Henry and Tilly’s Mum and Dad were managing their separation or if the children had contact with both parents.

Mum was invited in for a meeting with the Head teacher and it emerged that throughout the marriage there had been some physical and emotional abuse between the parents, but Mum was adamant that the children had not seen it and had not been affected by it. Dad had now moved out of the area and was seeing both children on a fairly haphazard basis. Mum felt the children were at no risk of harm when spending time with either of them as neither parent had ever been physically aggressive towards them, only each other.

As I worked with Henry and Tilly it became clear that although the children may not have seen any violence between their parents, they were certainly very aware that conflict had taken place. Henry was very explicit in his description of his experiences, he remembered sitting on the floor by his bedroom door listening to Mum and Dad arguing. Despite having his hands over his ears to muffle any bang or crash, he could still hear some of what they were saying which included Mum threatening to take the car and leave. Once Henry had heard Mum saying this, it would mean he would be lying awake, listening for the sound of the front door opening and closing, and a car driving off – another night of disrupted sleep.

The following morning Henry would experience a feeling of relief when he saw that both parents were still in the house even though one of them might be displaying a bruise or a scratch that hadn’t been there the previous day.

For Tilly it appeared too difficult for her to talk about, but using play therapy she eventually started to work through some of the anxiety she had been containing, regarding her parent’s relationship.

Both Henry and Tilly improved with the support of counselling and the schools intervention and the parents received additional advice on how to work with Henry and Tilly. This case highlights the effect that domestic abuse can have on children who witness but not necessarily suffer from the physical abuse and that this can often times be just as damaging. 

If you are worried that your children or children you may know have been affected by parental abuse, please do contact our Family team to see what support might be available.

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