Domestic violence 180Research led by the University of Northampton has found that children who experience domestic violence find complex, creative ways to manage and cope with what they have experienced, and have the capacity to be strong and resilient rather than remain 'passive witnesses'.

To collate the data for two-year project ‘Understanding Agency and Resistance Strategies – Children in Situations of Domestic Violence’, researchers in Greece, Italy, Spain and the UK interviewed 110 children and young people who had experienced domestic violence, focused on how they experienced the violence, and how they found ways to manage their experiences.

Using the insights gained from this research, the team developed a group-based therapeutic intervention to support children to build on their existing strengths and coping strategies. The intervention aims to help the young people develop resilience and a positive sense of self, as they recover from living with domestic violence.

Lead author Dr Jane Callaghan said: “We should challenge the media’s depiction of children who experience domestic violence, as they are often portrayed as passive, helpless victims, doomed to repeat cycles of violence in their own later relationships. From our research we have found that children’s experience of domestic violence is a little like a double helix, with the twin strands of coping and damage very closely interlinked.

"Children’s capacity to be strong, to be agentic, to be resilient can only be read in the context of the actions that function to undermine their development of agency and resilience, forms of relating that characterise violence, abuse and coercive control.

"Consider, for instance, the examples of children hiding away in cupboards, hidey holes and dens. In some senses this looks like an accession to abuse and control – children might be seen by professionals and academics as hiding away, as cowering in corners. But if we only see this painful and difficult aspect of the child’s behaviour, and don’t try to make sense of the meaning they attach to it, we do not see how it is also resistant and resilient. Children are not just frightened, they are not just hiding. They are creating spaces for themselves, where they can feel just slightly safer, just a little more secure and in control."

The research team also completed an analysis of European and national policies on domestic violence. Their most significant finding is that children are startlingly absent from legal and policy frameworks. Services for children who experience domestic violence are typically a ‘bolt on’ to adult oriented services according to the report, as adults, and particularly women, are seen as its main victims.

Dr Callaghan added: "We think this is because children are seen as ‘silent witnesses’, helpless in families where domestic violence occurs.
"By focusing on children’s voice, on their capacity to make sense of the situation they are in, and to take creative action to make their lives a little better, we have been able to highlight both the profound impact of violence on children’s lives and the complex and often paradoxical ways that they find to cope."

The UNARS project has highlighted that children experience the impact of domestic violence, and cope with domestic violence, in much the same way that adult victims do, and that the distinction between ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ victim, or between ‘adult victim’ and ‘child witness’ is not sustainable.

By focusing on children’s capacity for conscious meaning making and agency in relation to their experiences of domestic violence, the research team have highlighted the importance of recognising the impact domestic violence has on children, and their right to representation as victims in the context of domestic violence.

To learn more about the research, and to read the research report, visit Pictured posed by models