Domestic violence often involves a man physically abusing a woman on repeated occasions (although it can, of course, involve a woman assaulting a man or a partner assaulting a same-sex partner in the case of gay relationships). In this article, however, to save complications, I’ll use the conventional example of a man who attacks a woman.
If the man and the woman are parents/step – parents to children who live in the same house, the psychological harm done to these children can be very severe.
Indeed, although the children may themselves not be physically abused, the fact that they witness the abuse (a study by Hughes (1992) showed that in 90% of cases the child is in the same room, or next room to the room, in which the violence is taking place, meaning, of course, they see and/or hear it happening) the experience can have an equally damaging mental effect on them as would occur were they to suffer direct abuse.
In fact, experts now regard children forced to witness direct violence between parents as having emotional abuse inflicted upon them.
Because however, research into the effects on children of witnessing domestic violence is relatively recent, the damage being done to young people in this manner has gone largely undetected in the past, leading some researchers to refer to these children as ‘hidden’ or ‘unacknowledged’ victims of abuse.
Specific psychological effects upon the child of witnessing domestic abuse:
Children who regularly witness this kind of domestic violence in the home are made to feel powerless, afraid and, often, terrified. They are forced into the alarming realisation that:
a) those who are supposed to be strong and protect them are highly vulnerable and unable to protect themselves (implying they may not be able to protect their children either).
b) those who are supposed to protect them are capable of violently turning against those that they are supposed to care for and love.
Both of the above combine to make the child feel highly unsafe, vulnerable and insecure.
When indirect abuse turns into direct abuse:
Worse still, when domestic violence occurs in the house, it is possible for children to become directly involved in it.
For instance, their pity for their mother may compel them to intervene in order to try to protect her from the father.
Alternatively, a parent may encourage an impressionable and frightened child to join in the violence against the victim.
Furthermore, studies have revealed that approximately 70% of children who live in households in which the father physically abuses the mother are themselves physically abused by him – thus making this large group of children both indirect and direct victims of abuse.
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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).