Emotional abuse and the impact of domestic violence on children

Emotional abuse and the impact of domestic violence on children

In England, where I continue to practice as a Child Protection Social Worker, there are just over 50,000 children who are subject to Child Protection plans. Of this group, 46.0% are classified as at risk of significant harm because of neglect and this is followed by 35.3% who have been assessed as being at risk of emotional abuse.

While neglect can at times be hard to define, and is often seen as an ‘umbrella term’ when choosing a Child Protection category where there are several risk factors present, it is the long-term impact of emotional abuse that remains the most difficult to evidence.

This is because the damage of emotional abuse is mostly hidden, whereas the signs of neglect, physical abuse and sexual abuse can be easier to spot.

Emotional abuse might not leave bruises, but it does leave scars.

When speaking with colleagues from all over the world, they share a common problem of explaining the impact of emotional abuse to parents and carers who find difficulty in understanding the damage their children are suffering. This problem is multiplied many times over if the concerns are so severe that Social Workers are having to suggest alternative care options because of the likely impact of future emotional abuse on children.

Essentially, we are tasked with showing the likely future impact of damage that is invisible and only truly felt by the child themselves.

Children that are, in many cases, too young to speak for themselves.

But when you see the impact of emotional abuse first hand, you know the devastating consequences it can have and the terrible limitations it can place on the entire life course of a child:

  • Being overly-affectionate to strangers and lacking risk awareness
  • Lacking confidence
  • No close relationship or bond with their parents
  • Aggression or bullying towards others
  • A lack of innocence and growing up too soon
  • Struggles to self-regulate behaviour or control emotions
  • Isolation from friends and family members
  • Poor social skills
  • Self-harm
  • Soiling
  • Eating disorders
  • Difficulty sleeping at night

Here in the United Kingdom, one of the biggest contributors to the emotional abuse of children is living in households where you are exposed to domestic abuse.

Research by the NSPCC showed that around 1 in 5 children had been exposed to domestic abuse at some point in their lives.

A Government report on Serious Case Reviews, which are only undertaken when a child dies or is seriously harmed (and there are concerns about how professionals worked together to safeguard them), found that domestic abuse was a factor in over half of all such cases.

The immediate impact of exposure to domestic abuse on children includes:

  • Feelings of anxiety and worry
  • Experiencing nightmares or sleeplessness
  • Loss of concentration and difficulty in focusing on tasks
  • Hyperactivity and obsessive behaviours
  • Aggressive behaviours, often emulating witnessed abuse
  • Worry about the safety of abused parent and fear of being parted

Longer-term, the lifelong negative impacts can include:

  • Behavioural problems in later life
  • A higher likelihood of alcohol and substance abuse
  • Increasing chances of depression and anxiety disorders in adulthood
  • Worse achievement in education and training

If you consider all those ways that witnessing domestic violence can damage children, it becomes clear why Social Workers fight so hard to protect children from the emotional abuse it causes.

If you think about the way that witnessing domestic violence can shape a child’s behaviours, change their character, prevent them from achieving in school, cut them off from friends, stunt their emotional development and push them into criminal activities, Social Workers must do anything we can to safeguard children who are at risk.

Hopefully we can keep children safe in their family homes through interventions like domestic violence perpetrator programmes, courses such as the Freedom Programme and direct work to help parents better understand the impact that living this way has on their children.

But, if negating such risk means having to go to Court and suggest alternative care, when all our other efforts to keep children safe have failed, then that is a step that we sadly must take.

The alternative option, to leave children languishing in abusive households in the hope that they are resilient enough to survive, is to write children off and sentence them to a life of compounded oppression; beset by cycles of deprivation and more likely to pass this abuse on to their own future generations.

All of us, parents and Social Workers one and all, must do whatever we can to protect children from the emotional abuse that comes from living with domestic violence.

After all, we should have the same goal- to do whatever we can to keep children safe.

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  1. It is a constant struggle to evidence the emotional impact on children even through evidence based practice. Other professionals need also to be aware and fluent in research on the long and imidiate term impact on all areas of the child’s life and development . That way social workers and other services can become involved to support children and enable the changes that are required . I would love to be able to sit parents infront of a movie of some sort that shows the damage that Domestic abuse and violence has on children . Equally the impact of drug, alcohol and other substance misuse . All to often the threshold is what is good enough . In my mind and practice non of the above is acceptable for a child to grow up in .