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Domestic abuse: We think of the children primarily as witnesses. We shouldn’t

Only a fraction of children get professional help to cope with the effects of dealing with violence in the home

Let’s imagine that you are a child of, say, eight years of age and you already know what are the safe spaces in your home.

Perhaps you watch the clock for when it’s getting nearer coming-home time for an abusive parent and you will have to watch what you say and do so as not to be met with an outburst of rage.

When we read of a woman being beaten or even killed by a violent partner, we wonder what the children must have gone through. But, primarily, the image in our mind probably is that of the abuse inflicted on the partner. We think of the children, it seems to me, primarily as witnesses. But they are victims also who try to take steps to protect themselves and, sometimes, their mother from what is going on.

Growing up in this way, of course, has an impact on their mental health and on how they will feel and react in the world when they are adults. A journal article based on the UK experience makes it clear that children are more than collateral damage. They know what is going and they deal with it as best they can from a position of powerlessness. Beyond “Witnessing”: Children’s Experiences of Coercive Control in Domestic Violence and Abuse is published in The Journal of Interpersonal Violence. Researchers interviewed 21 children in the UK aged between eight and 18. If the father smashes objects around the house to stop the mother from going to meet her friends, the children come to know that this is more than just an outburst of anger. It is for control over his wife or partner. Often the children have to watch their step too. “If you touch the newspaper before he reads it, you are grounded,” one said.


A small example? Maybe, but it’s a telling indication of the complete control over what goes on in the house that is being demanded. All too often the children experience continuing control after the relationship between abused parent and the perpetrator has ended and they are theoretically free.

One child talked of the father hanging around the shop when the mother wants to go to buy groceries. She has to wait until he goes away. Meanwhile, she is subjected to sneering remarks. Another father used to have access visits on Thursdays but went to court and changed it to Sundays. That way the mother and children will no longer be able to make their Sunday visits to their grandmother.

Children are fairly well aware of what is going on here and know that it’s an attempt to instil a sense of insecurity in the mother. In the family home, a child might have to think about the consequences of just saying hello to the father and how he might react on this occasion.

Researchers say that children living in such situations are continually trying to predict the unpredictable, especially when the perpetrator is living with the family. Vigilance becomes part of life. An older child in a safe space (bathroom, bedroom or stairs for instance) in the house may be keeping a sharp ear out for signs of trouble downstairs. Sometimes a child may make an excuse to walk into a room to interrupt an argument before it goes as far as violence. One child explained that if everything seemed okay she would sit and watch TV downstairs with her brother. If an argument broke out she’d get herself and her brother out of there.

Children need help to deal with the mental health effects of all this. But the report notes that in the UK only 11% of children who experience domestic violence and abuse get special support from the child and adolescent mental health services. It’s hardly any better here, given recent reports about failings in those services. This research, I should add, was completed before the pandemic and one can only imagine how much worse the situation must have been in lockdown.

– Pádraig O’Moráin (Instagram,Twitter: @padraigomorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His next book is Acceptance – Create change and move forward; his daily mindfulness reminder is available free by email (