Domestic abuse is a children's issue too. There is an abundance of psychological evidence to support that growing up in a home where domestic abuse takes place can be harmful to children's physical and mental health.

Domestic abuse is a mental health issue

Domestic abuse is recognised as an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), which is a stressful event which occurs in childhood and can have a significant impact on a child. Although some children can demonstrate remarkable resilience, many children who have experienced domestic abuse can experience short-term issues and are at serious risk of long-term physical and mental health problems. It can limit their opportunities and outcomes throughout their life. There is even evidence to support that domestic abuse can impact on children pre-birth by affecting the development of stress-response networks.

Impact of domestic abuse on a child's mental health

It can be very upsetting and distressing for children to witness one of their parents being abused. Children are likely to be intimated by perpetrators of domestic abuse and can face abuse themselves. Children can also develop fear and anxiety. Children can develop symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after witnessing domestic abuse, which can lead to issues with sleeping and nightmares. The experience of domestic abuse can also impact on a child's ability to interact positively with others. Some children, especially girls, can internalise their feelings and become withdrawn and depressed. This can lead to eating disorders or self-harming.

Prevalence of domestic abuse in Scotland

It is estimated that over one hundred thousand children experience domestic abuse in Scotland. Domestic abuse can take place whilst parents cohabit, but it can also be used by perpetrators as a means of control after separation. Child contact can often be used as a mechanism for control over an ex-partner.

How can we help children who have experienced domestic abuse?

Early intervention in relation to adverse childhood experience of domestic abuse is vital. There are various steps that a parent in an abusive relationship can take to protect their children.

General strategies

One of the most important things that a parent can do is to help their child feel safe. This involves seeking support to end the child's exposure to domestic abuse. Support can be provided by various agencies, including the police, social work, Women's Aid and Abused Men in Scotland.

Assistance from police

The police can investigate crimes and if there is a sufficiency of evidence, perpetrators can be prosecuted for domestic abuse crimes (including coercive control, introduced by the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018). In the criminal process, bail conditions can prevent an accused from contacting the complainer, and in the event of a conviction the court is obliged to consider whether to grant a non-harassment order preventing the perpetrator of domestic abuse from contacting the victim.

Since the passing of the Domestic Abuse (Protection) (Scotland) Act 2021, Police Scotland can now issue domestic abuse protection notices which can offer short-term protection to victims of domestic abuse and their children by removing the perpetrator from the home for a short period of time. Police Scotland can also apply to the court for a domestic abuse protection order, which can last up to two months (and extended for a further month) to prevent a perpetrator of domestic abuse from returning to the family home.

Civil law remedies

Family solicitors can assist victims of domestic abuse with protective orders through the civil courts. An interdict (with power of arrest) or a non-harassment order can be sought against the perpetrator to prevent further harassment of the victim. Further, the civil courts can grant an exclusion order to suspend the right of a perpetrator of domestic abuse to occupy the family home for an indefinite period of time, and powers of arrest can be attached by the court to any ancillary interdict granted.

Family therapists

Professional input can often be very helpful for children who have experienced domestic abuse. A family therapist can therapeutically support a child who has experienced domestic abuse and assist reduce the psychological and emotional impact on the child. A family therapist will find the right way to communicate with the child, taking account of their age, communication needs and any disabilities.

There is a choice of different therapies which can be offered to a child to reduce their anxiety, stress, confusion and, sadness and identify feelings of guilt, blame and shame. They can help improve a child's ability to think rationally. They can provide support for trauma, which can impact on a child's educational attainment and their ability to form and maintain positive relationships with others. They can explore a child's understanding of a parent's behaviour, the child's relationship between their parents, the child's emotional reactions and examine the child's emotional reactions to their situation. Therapy can have a positive impact on a child's mental health and psychological development through the development of empathy and resilience and by finding new coping mechanisms for the child.

Life Story Counselling

Pat Barclay, Family Consultant, advocates the use of Life Story Counselling for children who have experienced domestic abuse.

"Life Story Counselling explores the child’s experiences over their developmental stages. It provides assessment and support in respect of the child's separation anxieties and confusion experienced with domestic abuse. The principles of Life Story Counselling can be applied at any age or stage of a child’s development and involve a variety of forms of engagement with parents and children of all ages to clarify the child’s feelings and behaviours through play, pictures, stories, work sheets, and drawings. Children have their own individual 'life stories' from different developmental perspectives of trauma. Life story counselling encourages clarity of their own experience of their trauma. It helps children to make sense of their past and find ways to understand and clarify their feelings about the past, to deal with the present and to prepare for the future. It increases self-esteem for children struggling with adverse childhood trauma."


Garry Sturrock

Senior Associate

Pat Barclay

Family Consultant