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Children’s experiences of domestic violence and abuse revealed in VOICES study

8 August 2019

Children and young people’s experiences of domestic violence and abuse are diverse and complex and need a tailored response from professionals, according to a study by researchers at the University of Bristol’s Centre for Academic Primary Care.

The VOICES study, funded by the National Institute for Health Research School for Primary Care Research for  is the first large-scale systematic review of research that draws solely on children’s perspectives.

It reveals not only the serious impacts of domestic violence and abuse on children’s wellbeing but also the coping strategies children use and hopes they have for the future.

The researchers analysed data from 33 previously published qualitative studies of children and young people aged between three and 25.

They found that the nature and severity of the violence experienced varied from hearing arguments to witnessing extreme acts of violence, in some cases ending in the death of a parent or carer.

Family and the wider social context were found to impact on how children experienced domestic violence. For some, living in already troubled families or neighbourhoods, domestic violence was just one aspect of violence in their daily experiences and identity.

Children were found to cope with violence while it was happening using a diverse array of tactics and many, especially older siblings, actively attempted to protect others, such as siblings and mothers as well as animals.

Impacts included profound feelings of fear, anxiety and emotional pain, lack of sleep and hypervigilance, and a desire for normality.

Dr Alison Gregory, Research Fellow (Traumatised and Vulnerable Populations) at the Centre for Academic Primary Care, University of Bristol who co-led the research, said: “We know that domestic violence and abuse can damage children’s health and wellbeing. This study shows what it is like to experience domestic violence and abuse from the perspective of children themselves.

“What we found is that children’s experiences of domestic violence are both diverse and complex, and depend on things such as the child’s age at the time of the violence, whether they have siblings, the wider family and social context, and the actions they feel able to take. It highlights, in many ways, that children don’t experience domestic violence in a passive way, but actively develop strategies for coping. The children also expressed hope for the future to lead ‘ordinary’ lives that many of us take for granted.

“We will be following up with detailed recommendations for professionals on how to respond appropriately to children but the key messages for now are to listen carefully to each individual child’s account, give them time and space to disclose their experiences, and tailor responses according to their needs."

About domestic violence and abuse

Domestic violence and abuse (DVA) is defined as any ‘incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or who have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality’. (Home Office, 2018).

It is estimated that 15% of children have been exposed to at least one form of DVA at some point in their childhoods and, 3.1% have been exposed in the last year.

Paper: Hope, agency, and the lived experience of violence: A qualitative systematic review of children’s perspectives on domestic violence and abuse by Lisa Arai et al. Published in Trauma, Violence, & Abuse. July 2019.

Further information

About the Centre for Academic Primary Care, University of Bristol

The Centre for Academic Primary Care (CAPC) at the University of Bristol is a leading centre for primary care research in the UK, one of nine forming the NIHR School for Primary Care Research. It sits within Bristol Medical School, an internationally recognised centre of excellence for population health research and teaching. Follow us on Twitter: @capcbristol.

About the NIHR

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is the nation's largest funder of health and care research. The NIHR:

  • funds, supports and delivers high quality research that benefits the NHS, public health and social care
  • engages and involves patients, carers and the public in order to improve the reach, quality and impact of research
  • attracts, trains and supports the best researchers to tackle the complex health and care challenges of the future
  • invests in world-class infrastructure and a skilled delivery workforce to translate discoveries into improved treatments and services
  • partners with other public funders, charities and industry to maximise the value of research to patients and the economy.

The NIHR was established in 2006 to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research, and is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. In addition to its national role, the NIHR commissions applied health research to benefit the poorest people in low- and middle-income countries, using Official Development Assistance funding.

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