Hedy Cleaver and Wendy Rose

Caring for children who have experienced domestic abuse

  • Date:

It is estimated at least 60% of children in foster, adoption or kinship placements have been victims of domestic abuse prior to living with their new families. It is the responsibility of local authority social workers and other relevant professionals to understand the long-term impact domestic abuse can have on children’s mental and physical health, their education and social lives. The state has a duty to ensure the children’s wellbeing and safety, and support their carers to understand the short and long-term consequences of domestic abuse for the children they are looking after. 

It is vital that social work practitioners and managers understand how exposure to domestic abuse affects children of different ages. For example, the impact on the unborn child may result from physical assaults on the expectant mother, her high levels of stress, and self-medication using alcohol. 

Infants may have failed to develop secure bonding and attachment. They may have difficulty regulating their emotions, display symptoms similar to post traumatic stress disorder, and have problems interacting with their peers. To establish secure bonding and attachment is the primary challenge facing carers. Some infants may appear “closed down”, while others can be extremely demanding and fretful. Carers will need to enable strong bonding and attachment to ensure children can feel they are a valued member of the family, are safe and will be cared for. 

Middle year children may have delayed intellectual and cognitive development because problems in their birth family dominated their thoughts and ability to concentrate, or because violent outbursts resulted in short term school exclusions. Many will have a negative sense of who they are, seeing themselves as failures, no good at school, disliked by peers and not loveable. Carers will need to work in partnership with teachers to support any interest the child may have and recognise their achievements, however small and tentative. 

When children display rage and violence in the home, the challenge for carers is to establish firm boundaries that children understand to be fair, and respond to aggression in a calm and non-violent manner. When such behaviour continues over long periods, it can deplete the carer’s ability to react in a nurturing way and they will need considerable support.

Exposure to domestic abuse may have left adolescents at increased risk of psychosis and other mental health issues. Many will have settled well with their new families, only to have the physical and emotional changes of puberty trigger flashbacks to earlier feelings of fear and uncertainty.

Caring for a teenager who has experienced domestic abuse, overlaid with a life of instability and change will be particularly challenging. Some will try to obliterate their circumstances through dissociation, withdrawal, self-harming, and/or excessive use of drugs and alcohol. It is essential carers take this seriously and when necessary seek specialist therapeutic help.

The experience of domestic abuse may affect teenagers’ view of romantic relationships. Carers may need support to guide teenagers in what is a healthy and loving relationship and to develop the self-respect and confidence to negotiate with prospective partners.

Our Caring for children who have experienced domestic abuse Good Practice Guide is the first to shine a spotlight on the many children who live with domestic abuse before coming into care. The effects may not be immediately apparent once they are living with their new family. The guide examines the care children may need, and how best to assess, prepare and support them and their caring families. It is essential reading for social workers placing and supporting children exposed to domestic abuse and those managing, providing and developing services for them.

Emeritus Professor Hedy Cleaver, Royal Holloway College, University of London.
Wendy Rose OBE.