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Domestic abuse


Domestic violence has been defined as:

  • "Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality", (English government definition) or
  • "Any violent or abusive behaviour (whether physical, sexual, psychological, emotional, verbal, financial etc) that is used by one person to control and dominate another with whom they have or have had a relationship" (Hester et al, 2007).

Research has given us an increasing awareness of how seriously domestic abuse can impact upon children's behaviour and well-being, even if the children are not being directly harmed themselves. Children witnessing domestic abuse is recognised as 'significant harm' in the Adoption and Children Act 2002 which amended the definition of 'harm' in England and Wales to include 'impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another'. Witnessing domestic abuse is also recognised as harm in the Family Homes and Domestic Violence (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 and in the Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006.

Summary of the main issues

Children can experience domestic abuse in a number of ways. They might be in the same room and witness the abuse, be physically abused themselves, hear it from another room, or see their parent’s injuries afterwards. The effects can include children becoming fearful or distressed, or suffering physical, psychological or emotional developmental problems. Children who experience domestic abuse often display more behavioural and emotional problems, both internal (such as depression and anxiety) and external (such as aggression or anti-social behaviour) than other children (Humphreys, 2006).

Children who experience domestic abuse are also likely to be at risk of other types of abuse. Research shows that domestic abuse is a central issue in child protection, and is a factor in the family backgrounds in two thirds of serious case reviews where a child has died. (Brandon, 2010).

Children can also experience domestic abuse within their own relationships. Girls are more likely than boys to report experiencing abuse in their intimate relationships, and younger adolescents are just as likely as older adolescents to experience it. Most children do not tell an adult about this abuse, and it is only in recent years that awareness of this topic has increased in the UK, with it being recognised in government guidance for the first time in Working Together 2006 (Barter et al, 2009).

Research indicates that in 50% of cases, domestic abuse continues even after parental separation, often during contact visits, and so agencies must be aware of this when formulating their response. (Stanley et al 2009). There are few studies into what children think about contact arrangements (Thiara et al, 2012).

If you are worried about a child who is living with domestic abuse, you can call the helpline .


Barter, C.; McCarry, M., Berridge, D., and Evans, K. (2009) Partner exploitation and violence in teenage intimate relationships. London: NSPCC.

Brandon, M., Bailey, S. and Belderson, P. (2010) Building on the learning from serious case reviews: a two-year analysis of child protection database notifications 2007–2009. London: Department for Education.

Hester, M., Pearson, C., Harwin, N. and Abrahams, H. (2007) Making an impact: Children and domestic violence. 2nd Edition. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Home Office (2012) Cross-government definition of domestic violence: a consultation: summary of responses (PDF). London: Home Office 

Humphreys, C. (2006) Domestic violence and child abuse. Research and Practice Briefing: Children and Families. No 14. Department for Education and Skill.

Stanley, N., Miller, P., Richardson Foster, H. and Thomson, G. (2009) Children and Families Experiencing Domestic Violence: Police and Children’s Social Services Responses, London, NSPCC.

Thiara, Ravi K. and Gill, Aisha K. (2012) Domestic violence, child contact, post-separation violence: issues for South Asian and African-Caribbean women and children: a report of findings. London: NSPCC.

Contact the NSPCC Information Service if you have questions about the NSPCC, domestic abuse or any child protection topic

Physical abuse in high risk families is an NSPCC priority