Children can be affected by domestic abuse in many ways. Jenni Whitehead gives guidance on how schools can provide help for pupils and their families.


Domestic violence accounts for a quarter of all reported violent crime: it is a crime which takes place largely unseen but which has tremendous costs to family and community life and to local services. The reality is that women are more at risk of violence from men they know than from stranger attacks and street violence.

Domestic violence usually increases in frequency and severity over time, resulting in physical and emotional damage to the woman and her children. The woman is increasingly isolated from family and friends and from any source of help. The end result may be serious physical injury, disability and even death: in this country two women a week are killed by their partners or former partners, usually following years of abuse.  Domestic violence affects people in all communities, all classes and ofall ages. 

The education service has a statutory duty to ‘safeguard and promote the welfare of children’ (Section 175(1) Education Act 2002). In order to support these children it is necessary to ensure that their mothers are given adequate support in resolving their situation.

How can schools help?

Despite the controlling nature of domestic abuse on the mother she is often still allowed to escort her children to school. School could be the one place many women regularly go without their partner and for this reason school can provide an opportunity to seek help. If school-based staff are prepared to support abused mothers by offering the opportunity to talk to someone on school premises or at least by offering the use of a phone to contact domestic abuse agencies, they will not have to risk being caught ringing for help from home.

It is difficult to open up a conversation about domestic abuse but here are some questions that can help women talk:

  • Is everything all right at home?
  • Sometimes women are hurt physically by someone close to them. Has this happened to you?
  • It is obvious to me something has happened, do you want to talk about it?
  • I notice you have a number of bruises, did someone hit you? Did someone you know do this to you?
  • It is obvious to me something has happened, is there anyone in school you would like to talk to?

Be prepared for:

  • mum breaking down
  • mum rejecting your offer of help. Should this happen, inform her that if she wishes to change her mind, you will be available to listen.

Following procedures

If, as a result of asking questions, mum discloses abuse perpetrated on herself or her children you will need to follow your locally agreed child procedures.

It is good practice to ask the consent of a parent before making a referral to another agency. However, you cannot un-know what you have been told, so if you ask the consent of the parent and they refuse to give it you will need to tell the parent that you are obliged to refer to social services.

Remember that if you, in your professional judgement, believe that asking consent or telling a parent that you are going to refer will put the child at further abuse, seek advice from social services first. Where a named person makes a referral without gaining consent of the parent the reason for not doing so should be recorded.

The effects of domestic violence on children

Children can witness domestic violence in a number of ways, which extend beyond direct observation of violent and abusive acts to their mothers. A study carried out by the NCH Action for children in 1994 found the following:

  • 73% of the children had directly witnessed violent assaults on their mothers (including sexual abuse)
  • 62% had overheard violent incidents
  • 52% had witnessed the aftermath of violence or seen the resulting injuries
  • 27% had themselves been hit or abused by the violent man (usually their father)
  • 13% had been ‘caught in the crossfire’ and hurt ‘by accident’.

Where children do not directly witness the physical assaults on their mother, they may be exposed to other forms of abuse directed at her, such as verbal humiliation and or threats, and this may be just as distressing and damaging.

Many children truant in order to protect their mother or another female relative, and schools should consider this possibility in every case of truancy. Alternatively, a child may become very absorbed in their schoolwork and activities in order to escape the violence at home.

Children are aware of the violence in the home, and are affected by their mother’s attempts to protect them. Some abusers use children to threaten and control their mother.

Inevitably children brought up in the midst of domestic abuse are likely to draw lessons for life from it. Some children will minimise the abuse in order to cope, but while minimisation may allow the child to get on with things it may have a more worrying effect.

Minimisation may take the form of identification with the abuser, ‘He wasn’t that bad’, ‘It didn’t hurt me’ may be translated in later life into, ‘I’m entitled to do this myself.’ Another lesson can be that if you want your own way you get it through abusive behaviour. Alternatively some children may come to believe that domestic abuse is an inevitable part of relationships. These children may then accept domestic abuse as something you just put up with.

Schools can help children and young people to understand the difference between healthy and damaging relationships through various aspects of the curriculum.

PSHE lessons can offer learning activities that help children to explore relationships and to understand their rights to be protected from abuse.

Contact your local domestic abuse services for advice on how to incorporate the issue of domestic abuse into the curriculum. Many services will be prepared to come to staff meetings to offer training to staff and some services will offer co-working on curriculum packages. Most refuges now have workers whose role is to work with the children. These workers can often advise school staff about offering support to individual children.