Skip to content

Trauma and Domestic Abuse – Impact on Children and Young People

Any experience of domestic abuse will impact on children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing at the time, and in the medium-term. In CAADA’s 2nd national policy report (2014), ‘In plain sight: Effective help for children exposed to domestic abuse’, the impact is clearly outlined:

Exposure to domestic abuse causes serious physical and psychological harm to children. As measured by the children’s caseworkers, at intake 52% had behavioural problems, 60% felt responsible for the negative events, 52% had problems with social development and relationships, and 39% had difficulties adjusting at school.

There is considerable evidence to suggest that children’s long-term outcomes are impacted by experiences of abuse where there has been intense, frequent and ‘poorly resolved’ conflict, where children have been afforded little control and respect (Harold et al., EIF, 2016):

Where they have experienced this abuse again and again, the cumulative, repetitive trauma alters the neural pathways and hormone responses. 

The developmental stage at which children have encountered this abuse also plays a key factor. There is a particular risk for those children in the earliest years because of the potential impact on brain development, the foundations of which are happening during this period.

This information provides some examples of the types of behaviours, emotions and feelings children and young people may present at different ages but they, of course, overlap.

How they react will also depend on how they are supported (see ‘What helps?’)

0-2 year olds

  • Withdrawn
  • Apathetic
  • Stressed
  • Dysregulated
  • Can’t get contingent social responsiveness so can’t develop strategies to get the comfort and soothing they need

2-5 year olds

  • Severe tantrums
  • Aggression to others
  • Anxiety
  • Somatic pain, ‘my tummy’s hurting’
  • Regressions in Speech, Language, Toileting
  • Limited capacity to understand and express what they see

5-10 year olds

  • Social relationships: feel isolated
  • Self-esteem: feel shame
  • Progress in school: can’t concentrate and focus
  • Shame - they realize that not everyone lives in a home like theirs
  • Beginning to connect with the feelings of the abused parent
  • Beginning to develop awareness that it might happen again

10-19 (Adolescents)

  • Take sides
  • Take on the behaviour of either the perpetrator or the victim (they internalize the model of intimate relationships)
  • Escape through risky behaviour
  • ‘Mindlessness’: can’t recognize own thoughts or feelings, work out what the right thing to do is; doesn’t think about what it means for others
  • Ditch school
  • Self-harm
  • Fearful about what might be happening at home

All ages

  • Unhappy
  • Poor attendance/unhappy/knowledge of adult sexual activity (consider age of adolescent as to whether appropriate)

Can lead to:

  • insecure and disorganized attachment
  • inability to cope with stress
  • PTSD symptoms
  • major depressions

If a child has witnessed a lot of violence, time and time again, it is more likely that they will also experience PTSD symptoms:

Under 8

  • Regression
  • Repeated violence in play
  • Exaggerated startle reflection

8 and over (similar to how an adult will experience it)

  • Hyper-vigilant
  • Avoidant
  • Re-experiencing the event

What has Covid-19 and lockdown meant in terms of potential trauma due to domestic abuse?

During the first wave of coronavirus and lockdown:

  • The NSPCC say contacts to its helpline about domestic abuse rose by up to nearly 50%.
  • The charity School Home Support recorded a 750% increase in safeguarding referrals to social care.
  • The domestic abuse charity Refuge recorded, in June along, a 77% increase in contacts with a significant increase in the number of women seeking emergency accommodation.
  • One domestic abuse call was made to the police every 30 seconds in the first seven weeks of lockdown (data obtained by Women’s Aid and Panorama from police forces through FOI laws).
  • A recent survey and services by the charity Safe Lives found that 61% of survivors were unable to reach out for support during lockdowns.

Studies by the NSPCC and Childline have identified, from calls with children and young people:

  • For some it will have been a continuation of existing abuse, but with nowhere to escape to for relief and safety.
  • For others this may be the first time they have realized that this abuse has been going on in their home and so may be in shock.
  • All will have been exposed to stress and trauma.


  • There has also been a reduction in perpetrators or potential perpetrators getting the support they need to change their behaviour.
  • Some perpetrators have used the lockdown and Coronavirus situation to control their families more.
  • The circumstances have made it even more difficult for a person to leave their abusive partner with the children: fears of catching the virus; less means – they are economically dependent on their partner


Victims Including Domestic Abuse:

Domestic Abuse

Useful Worksheets:

"I need you to..." Stepping into the shoes of a young person who has experienced trauma, loss & change:

Compensate for my Brain State - Dr Bruce Perry’s Arousal Continuum:

6 Steps of Trauma-Sensitive Connection:

Supporting the Return to School with Hobfoll’s Five Principles of Recovery:

The Learning Triangle: A Model of Attachment & Learning by Heather Geddes:

“What if?” Using a trauma-informed lens to reframe behaviour:

The Trauma-informed Classroom - Providing a Safe Base:

Treating Trauma with Hope and Optimism:

Applying the 4 Rs of Trauma-Informed approaches in the return to school:


Search form

We use cookies to give you the best experience of using this website. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies. Please read our Cookie Policy for more information.