How Can we Tell if a Child is Experiencing Domestic Violence?

We know domestic violence is real, we know it happens behind doors in all cultures, regardless of age, gender, economic conditions and sexual orientation and we know that its effects on family members are devastating. This is why in our domestic violence workshops we look into the various tell tell signs.

Yet for all of this knowledge, it is still extremely difficult to identify domestic violence from the outside looking in. Perpetrators are adept at hiding their crimes and their victims are used to putting on a front, making plausible excuses and wearing clothes that conceal the bruises.

This is painfully frustrating for anyone who has a duty of care towards children, whether that be a suspicious family relative, a teacher, a social worker or a health professional. One of the problems in identifying domestic violence is due to the different ways in which children cope with the situation: some might indulge in bad behaviour while others toe the line at school; one child may display obvious signs of emotional distress while another may become quiet and withdrawn.

Although no-one can ever be 100% sure that domestic abuse or violence is a factor in a child’s behaviour, here are some of the common symptoms to be aware of, broken down into approximate age group.

Of course, these symptoms alone do not mean that domestic abuse or violence is definitely occurring.

From 0-5 years

Pre-school children will almost always be unable to articulate their distress, so it is very important to look out for behavioural cues with this age group.

  • Neglect: Domestic violence and child neglect often go hand in hand. If a young child is often conspicuously hungry, dirty and unkempt, this may be a warning sign of trouble at home.
  • Extreme or unexplained reactions: The trauma of witnessing a parent being abused can resurface at any time in a manner similar to PTSD. Young children who suddenly begin to panic and become distressed with no obvious cause may be recalling a painful memory.
  • Poor Eye Contact. Children from a household where abuse occurs soon learn not to look into the eyes of the perpetrator as this often triggers aggression or makes a situation worse. This becomes a pattern of behaviour when relating to any adult.
  • Cognitive and physical impairment: Of course, in the vast majority of cases, a child’s cognitive or physical disability is in no way indicative of domestic abuse. However, taken together with other symptoms, mental or physical birth defects can suggest possible abuse of the mother when she was pregnant.

From 5-9 years

  • Heightened anxiety and fear: Children from abusive households are usually primed to expect trouble. They may be easily startled and show extreme reactions to any perceived threat.
  • Withdrawal and detachment: Conversely, some children cope with domestic abuse by retreating into an inner world. These children will show little interest in forming friendships, often play by themselves and seem indifferent to the world around them.
  • Poor concentration and attainment: A child may be so preoccupied with their home situation that they are unable to focus on their school work. They may be worried that they are not at home to protect the abused parent. Grades will soon start to suffer.

From 10 years

  • Friends never visit home: Where a child is embarrassed or fearful of their home environment they will often do anything they can to avoid having friends round to play or have tea. They may also be protecting the abusive parent if they worry they will be found out and ‘taken away.’ If a child becomes distressed with the thought of their peers or teachers coming to their home, this is a big indicator of domestic abuse.
  • Poor attendance: Children from abusive households may fear to leave the abused parent to such an extent that they will skip school to protect them.
  • Anti-social or suicidal behaviour: Some older children respond to the chaos at home by unleashing it on others while others take their problems within and think about suicide as a means of escape.

Always bear in mind that it is unlikely that children will openly talk about domestic abuse. A key tactic of abusers is to threaten children with harm or being taken away if they ever tell anyone what is happening. Even if there has been no actual threat, children will fear for the safety of the victim and even the abusive parent should the truth come out.

Discover the Facts About Domestic Violence with 2020 Dreams

For more information about 2020 Dreams Domestic Violence and Abuse workshops for schools, please contact us.