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How can I help my children?

Children and young people who live with domestic abuse don’t just witness the abuse they experience it; they are aware of the noise, the tension and the fear. Little eyes and ears don’t miss much.

In families with more than one child each child will have their own understanding of what has happened and will experience it differently and be impacted by it in different ways. How children are impacted depends on their age, their sex, their personality, their role within the family and the length of time and the severity of what they have lived with.

Children tend to be put in the following roles within families were domestic abuse is present:

  • Caretaker
  • Confidant to the victim and/or to the abuser
  • Abuser’s assistant
  • Perfect child
  • Referee
  • Scapegoat

These roles may be imposed on the child, they can play more than one role taking on different roles at different times and these can be a way the child uses to cope with what has happened. As part of any child’s development they will go through stages where their focus is entirely on them and their thoughts and feelings. For a child living with abuse this can mean that they can feel confused and scared and blame themselves, they will guess what has caused the ‘bad thing’ to happen and imagine what might happen next, they may even think they can stop it by not being bad.

Often abusers will use children to maintain control of their partner (they are making a choice about their parenting when they do this), behaviours can include:

  • Undermining your parenting by ignoring rules you put in place and encouraging the children to ignore them
  • Calling you names in front of the children, or telling the children that the bad things happen because of you
  • Being threatening, intimidating/violent when you have the children in your arms
  • Threatening to have the children taken from your care
  • Telling you you’re a bad parent, sapping your confidence in your ability to bring up your children
  • Refusing to pay child maintenance

Children can learn the following unhealthy lessons from living with abuse:

  • Violence and threats get you what you want
  • When people hurt other, they do not get in trouble
  • Victims are to blame for what happens to them
  • People who love you can hurt you
  • Anger isn’t healthy and you shouldn’t be or show anger
  • Unhealthy, unequal relationships are normal
  • You have to deal with your problems by yourself
  • Adults don’t keep their promises,
  • Bad things happen no matter how hard I try to be good
  • Life is not fair

Children who experience domestic abuse may have some of the following thoughts and feelings:

  • Angry at their mum for staying with the abuser and letting them treat her badly
  • Afraid that she will go back if they have left, that they will kill her if they haven’t left, or that they will turn on them
  • Guilty that they haven’t been able to stop the ‘bad thing’ from happening
  • Embarrassment as they are aware other families don’t do this
  • Isolated as they can’t talk to anyone about this
  • Worried about what will happen if they leave,
  • Helplessness as they feel there is nothing they can do to stop bad things happening
  • Responsibility for causing the bad things, or for making sure their brothers and sisters are ok
  • May not trust their mum to keep them safe
  • Doubt that their parents love them

What you can do to support your children:

  • Getting support for yourself (this can be from family and friends or professionals) to ensure you are as ok as you can be, as if you are struggling it will make it harder for you to help your children
  • Talking to them about what to do if they get scared, where they can go and what they can do, make a safety plan with them
  • Letting them know that they aren’t to blame for what has happened, it’s not their fault just like it’s not yours
  • Letting them know that its ok to talk about what is happening with people they trust (this could be grandparents, teachers etc)
  • Not talking to them about things they don’t need to know, while they may be the only person you feel you can talk to, they are children and don’t need to know all the details about what is happening.
  • Recognize their feelings and that how they saw things happen may be different from you but that this doesn’t mean that they are or you are wrong
  • Ensure there are routines and rules for your children
  • If you have had to move helping your child to build up networks in the new area or if safe keeping in contact with people from where you stayed before
  • Talking to them about how they are feeling and helping them develop ways of coping with difficult emotions
  • Have fun together